Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger
Reviewed by Kayla Dean
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers — 307 pages. Available in paperback, hardcover, and e-book.
Snatch your tea from the kettle, and don’t forget your best deadly accessory. Gail Carriger brings her signature snappy style and sharp wit from her Parasol Protectorate Series into a new set of stories. Etiquette and Espionage, the first in the Finishing School Series, is everything you could hope for in an action and adventure steampunk novel.
The Finishing School Series is set in the same world as Parasol Protectorate, only this time the main character is teenager Sophronia Temminick, a troublesome, but outrageously smart girl who always seems to get into trouble. When it seems her behavior couldn’t be more difficult, Sophronia’s mother sends her away to finishing school on the moors of England. But little does she know, the Miss Geraldine’s School for Young Ladies is not quite the polite and mannered learning environment her mother would have wanted for her daughter. Instead, it’s everything Sophronia could have wanted.
It turns out “finishing school” is just that: the girls must learn how to “finish” anyone or anything that needs to be finished. This typical term is, in fact, a play on words: the girls are trained assassins, learning under the guise of a ladies’ school for manners.
But on the way to school, Sophronia and her new friends, Dimity and Pillover, discover that the woman posing as Miss Geraldine is just an imposter. The school never sends out the real Miss Geraldine; she doesn’t even know that her school is a training ground for assassins. It’s part of their training to fool her.
Highway men from the air –called flywaymen in the story– immediately take over the carriage, and keep asking for something — a prototype. The student imposter, Monique de Pelouse, pretends she doesn’t understand, but doesn’t try to defeat the men. It is Sophronia who saves the day, drives the carriage to safety, and gets everyone away from the flywaymen and their dirigibles. However, the trouble isn’t over yet, and Sophronia still has much to learn at finishing school. We certainly get our fair share of interesting lessons.
From learning how to curtsy to understanding which knife they can hide under their petticoats, the girls start to learn all the tricks to being a spy at their first year of finishing school. But Sophronia must first prove herself. While everyone else has a family history at the school, Sophronia is what they call a covert recruit. She was referred by someone, but who? It is a mystery until the very end, and it isn’t the person you expect.
We also get a view into the world underneath the ladylike classrooms of the dirigible school. After Sophronia gains a mechanimal pet, she makes her way to the boiler room to feed him and meets some of the most interesting characters in the book. We meet Soap, a teenage boy who immediately befriends Sophronia, and nine-year-old child genius Vieve, a teacher’s nephew with a love of trousers and a knack for invention. With Dimity, Vieve, and Soap, Sophronia must discover why the flywaymen want the prototype, and what it means for England. The answer has something to do with technology — something we have today, yet the world didn’t yet have in Victorian London.
While in the Parasol Protectorate Series, we had a keen sense of London and its surroundings, we get more by way of allusions to the city in Etiquette. In this novel, we have a keen sense of the English moors around them: the Academy is a dirigible that floats over the countryside, guarded over by a werewolf and vampire, plus more than a few mysterious teachers at the school. They are constantly in hiding behind clouds.
And while we have only a glimmer of some of the more supernatural elements of the world, it seems like the sequels will delve in further and bring us into the world of the vampires and werewolves. We do get allusion to the Parasol Protectorate series when one of the other girls, Sidheag, tells Sophronia that she is the great-great-great-great granddaughter of a Lord Maccon. It isn’t clear if this is the same Lord Maccon from Soulless, although if it is, then we are very far into the future.
Carriger has such a strong voice, and it really comes through in the novel. While some reviewers stated that they though some aspects of the novel were silly, like the girls’ training in fanning their eyelashes, Carriger really has a knack for satire. At one point, Monique tells Sophronia and Dimity that the boys at the evil genius school made silver and wood hair sticks for one girl, along with an exploding wicker chicken. When Sophronia asks, “Goodness, what’s that for?”, Dimity simply replies, “Who doesn’t want an exploding wicker chicken?” We never get the answer, but we do have our fair share of laughs.
By taking her characters into sometimes unlikely and ridiculous situations –in the climax, Dimity brings Sophronia a cheese pie in the middle of a fight– we can laugh right along with the characters, and understand that this is just part of the world of steampunk.
Carriger is a specialist in comedies of manners, and she does not disappoint in this story. By throwing in a little bit of the ridiculous, Carriger cleverly carries the novel and unfailingly entertains the reader. We can certainly keep in mind something that one of the teachers quite cleverly pointed out: “No one said learning etiquette and espionage would be easy, my dear.” We can all agree to that.