Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger (Finishing School #1)
Genre: STEAMPUNK, YA
Publisher: Little, Brown on February 5, 2013
Narrator & Audio Rights: Moira Quirk for Hachette Audio on February 5, 2013
It’s one thing to learn to curtsy properly. It’s quite another to learn to curtsy and throw a knife at the same time. Welcome to Finishing School. View Spoiler »Fourteen-year-old Sophronia is a great trial to her poor mother. Sophronia is more interested in dismantling clocks and climbing trees than proper manners–and the family can only hope that company never sees her atrocious curtsy. Mrs. Temminnick is desperate for her daughter to become a proper lady. So she enrolls Sophronia in Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.
But Sophronia soon realizes the school is not quite what her mother might have hoped. At Mademoiselle Geraldine’s, young ladies learn to finish…everything. Certainly, they learn the fine arts of dance, dress, and etiquette, but the also learn to deal out death, diversion, and espionage–in the politest possible ways, of course. Sophronia and her friends are in for a rousing first year’s education. « Hide Spoiler
Gail Carriger’s YA debut ETIQUETTE & ESPIONAGE was a fun, clever romp that showcased all the delights of steampunk…and trifle.
Sophronia Angelina Temminnick is a bit of a rapscallion, and her charm is infections…but her beleaguered mother does not agree! From a low ranking aristocratic family, Sophronia’s home in the country allows her the freedom to do things her peers in London cannot. She climbs trees, chats with stable boys, and gets into all kinds of scrapes. One of her more spectacular scrapes involves stripping the rubber from her home’s dumbwaiter to improve the tread on her boots.
This kind of behaviour has driven mamma Temminick to her wits’ end, and now she’s being carted off to finishing school. Could there be a more heinous punishment for a girl like Sophronia? But when she arrives at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality, Sophronia begins to realize that the school is more than it appears. As if all that weren’t awesome enough, the academy is housed in a dirigible!
Sophronia’s relationships with the other girls and her escapades on board the ship gave me a “Harry Potter” vibe – probably because this book also makes use of the most classic boarding school tropes. Sneaking out of her room at night, up to no good? Check. An unbearably snobby nemesis? Check. Scrambling to complete homework assignments whilst uncovering conspiracies? Check. Gail Carriger infuses these adventures with her trademark wit and humour, a combination that left a smile on my face the whole time I was listening to the audiobook. Moira Quirk’s narration was on point, too: she voiced all of the characters perfectly, even using a nice Scottish brogue for Sophronia’s pal Sidhe.
I would classify this as more firmly steampunk than Gail Carriger’s adult series, the Parasol Protectorate. It’s in the same universe (I believe it’s set prior to the events of that series) so Sophronia encounters a variety of supernaturals, including werewolves and vampires. But the focus here is more on the mechanics, as steampunk constructions and gadgets are integral to both plot and characters. The best of the steampunk finery was Bumbersnoot, Sophronia’s mechanimal. A mechanimal is exactly what it sounds like: a mechanical creation that mimics the shape and behaviours of an animal. I pictured him as an automaton shaped like a dachshund. He eats coal and, um, excretes it in little piles of soot. Somehow Carriger makes that seem adorable instead of gross.
Unlike many steampunk books, ETIQUETTE & ESPIONAGE grapples with issues of economic, national, and racial prejudice. For some reason many people seem to assume that Victorian England was a racially homogenous society, which couldn’t be further from the truth. A centre for international trade and home to several crucial shipping ports, London has been called home from people all across the globe, particularly those from (former) British colonies. Gail Carriger proves that she’s done her research by including people from diverse backgrounds in her narrative. The most obvious example of this is Soap, a young black man who works onboard the dirigible in the engine room.
While Sophronia doesn’t seem to care that Soap is black, several of her classmates are mystified by her friendship with him. Doesn’t she realize he’s “coloured”? And working class to boot? Something tells me that these issues (and Sophronia’s age) will prevent her from forming a romantic attachment to Soap– at least for now. Probably for the best since she’s so young!
ETIQUETTE & ESPIONAGE may be on the younger end of the YA spectrum, but Gail Carriger’s writing and Sophronia’s narrative voice are clever enough to appeal to adult readers as well. This book is perfect if you’re looking for something funny, witty, and light-hearted. I also highly recommend the audiobook format!