Joelene Reviews: Gail Carriger's - "Etiquette and Espionage"

After years of trying her poor mother’s patience, Sophronia Temminnick is being sent to finishing school. Mrs Temminnick is sure that an education in refinement will cure Sophronia’s habit of climbing, fraternising with technology and befriending lowly stable boys. Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality appears to be the perfect solution.

Appearances, however, can be deceiving. With the carriage being attacked before the party reach the school and the school itself being attacked soon after, Sophronia soon realises that Mademoiselle Geraldine’s may well be what she has been looking for. As promised, she will learn how to dress, converse, dance and charm; but only if she also applies herself to poisons, knives, diversion and lying.

Etiquette and Espionage is the first book in the Finishing School series. Set in the same world as the Parasol Protectorate series, Etiquette and Espionage is aimed at a slightly younger readership. In this case, however, I think that age recommendations should be summarily dismissed. Adults and teens alike will love this clever, irreverent Victorian-era steam-punk novel.

The writing style has been compared, with good reason, to Wodehouse. As in his works, Carriger’s voice is almost like another character in the book; quirky, witty and delightful. From the opening page it draws you in, imbuing everyday objects with motives and making the most tedious events into adventures.

Not to be outdone by the narration, Sophronia and her friends are amazing. For a group consisting primarily of girls they all have distinctive characters that aren’t bogged down in stereotype. Sidheag, with her rough manners and nonchalance about how the others see her, is my favourite, but the others are just as compelling. Dimity with her wish to be evil, even though she can’t help being lovely, and Vieve are both loyal and clever. Sophronia is the perfect lead character. She is complex and interesting; but her personality is the glue that holds this novel together. Her dynamic with other characters, her natural curiosity and her taste for adventure all meld together to keep the story moving forward.

Of the Victorian-era teen books I’ve read, this one strikes me as most historically accurate. Sorry, Cassandra Clare, and I love you, Libba Bray; but here it is. While the supernatural and steam-punk aspects would seem to counter any historical reality; the language, manners and values of the characters have something to them that just exudes old-fashioned sentiment. Characters, even the good ones, have no notion of political correctness when it comes to meeting other races. Even at the risk of blowing an operation, Sophronia point-blank refuses to wear trousers because she does not want to be a boy. The edges of the sharp bits of history have been blunted, but there’s still enough to hint at the unsavoury things that were, once upon a time, and I really liked that Carriger didn’t shy away from those things.

Etiquette and Espionage is a wonderfully funny start to what looks to be a great new series. I have seen Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series around, but had dismissed it because I haven’t read a steam-punk novel that I’ve enjoyed before. I am happy to say that this is no longer the case. I’ll be reading Carriger’s other books while waiting for the second Finishing School novel.

Etiquette and Espionage – (Gail Carriger)

Little, Brown (February 5, 2013)

ISBN: 9781907411588

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