The Story: [from GoodReads:]
Fourteen-year-old Sophronia is the bane of her mother’s existence. Sophronia is more interested in dismantling clocks and climbing trees than proper etiquette at tea–and god forbid anyone see her atrocious curtsy. Mrs. Temminnick is desperate for her daughter to become a proper lady. She enrolls Sophronia in Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. But little do Sophronia or her mother know that this is a school where ingenious young girls learn to finish, all right–but it’s a different kind of finishing. Mademoiselle Geraldine’s certainly trains young ladies in the finer arts of dance, dress, and etiquette, but also in the other kinds of finishing: the fine arts of death, diversion, deceit, espionage, and the modern weaponries. Sophronia and her friends are going to have a rousing first year at school.
My Take: While most steampunk, I have found, tends to court the darker side of the story spectrum, there are those works that waltz on the light side but avoid becoming full-fledged comedies. Etiquette and Espionage, the first novel in the Finishing School series, does exactly that thanks to Carriger’s trademark wit, which embeds itself into each character and scene. While the novel lacks a strong, rapid-fire plot, it has enough colorful characters, clever world-building, and genuine humor to keep it afloat for me.
For starters, the characters truly make this book. Sophronia Temminnick serves as the principle protagonist and she’s an absolute delight. Fans of Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series and its heroine, Alexia Tarabotti, will find the same sharp wit, manners, and charisma here in Sophronia though the latter brings a sense of youthful innocence that endears her to readers in a non-cloying way, thus she and Alexia are not clones. Sophronia’s story begins when her mother – who isn’t quite sure what to do with her resourceful and social grace-deprived daughter – opts to send her off to finishing school. At first, Sophronia balks at the idea yet is quick to discover that Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality isn’t all that it purports to be. Thus, the bulk of Sophronia’s development comes as a result of attending said finishing school and encountering fellow students, faculty, and staff – all while trying to uncover a mystery behind a missing device known as the prototype.
Populating the finishing school are a mix of professors who teach everything from dance to deadly games as the girls in attendance are taught not only to be fashionable ladies but also fashionable spies and assassins. Top that off with a vampire professor; a werewolf captain; a band of thieves known as flywaymen; an anti-supernatural political group called the Picklemen; and a plethora of automatons, and you’ve got yourself one fun supporting cast! Probably my favorite characters in the book are Sophronia and her school chums: the delicate-as-a-flower Dimity, the haughty Monique, the rough-and-tumble Scottish lass Sidheag, the painfully shy Agatha, and the prim and properly snobbish Preshea. It would have been tempting to rely on stereotypes to craft these characters, but Carriger uses some tried-and-true character forms and takes original spins on them by giving her characters distinguishing quirks for the sake of gentle humor. Overall, I loved these girls and some of them put aside any sense of cattiness to befriend each other and work together. Their interactions with each other and the rest of the school’s staff and faculty (as well as other side characters, such as Dimity’s smart and sophisticated brother, Pillover) are ultimately what make this book an enjoyable read.
Likewise, the world-building is wonderful! Keeping true to its steampunk roots, the novel incorporates all sorts of related tech, from dirigibles, to steam-powered engines, to mechanical butlers and maids, to even automaton animals.
Nothing here feels phoned in or is present just so the book can be called a steampunk novel. For me, if I can mentally remove the steampunk elements and a story still works, then it’s not true steampunk. But if the story would fall apart without its steampunk elements, then it’s the proverbial real McCoy. Thankfully, Etiquette and Espionage falls in this latter camp where the steampunk environment and gadgets all work to create a fully-functioning world, and without them, it wouldn’t be quite the same and some of the plot elements would cease to exist. Lastly, while there are paranormal elements and politics here that originated in the Parasol Protectorate series, it isn’t necessary to be familiar with those books. (I’ve only read one book from that series, Soulless, and I was able to follow along just fine without feeling like I was missing something.) In the same way, this novel retains Carriger’s signature voice, which possesses vestiges of a Victorian comedy of manners with fitting doses of dry wit and humor that is thankfully devoid of modern slang or overly-simplistic delivery.
That being said, the plot to Etiquette and Espionage is fairly thin and hinges on a McGuffin, which may or may not be your proverbial cup of tea. Myself, I’m cool with a McGuffin provided there is a good payoff in the end and it bears some degree of weight on the plot (such as, by way of example, the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings). For this novel, however, the payoff isn’t so much learning what the device is or its true purpose as it relates to the main characters or their world but seeing Sophorina try to determine where the device is hidden and then watch the young ladies take on some baddies who want it. The device in question is simply known as “the prototype” and it isn’t until later that we learn what it is. This is all well and good, but at times the prototype plot element all but fades into the background, is never really given a full explanation, and is seemingly dismissed by the novel’s end. In truth, what really drives this novel is its characters. Usually I’m not into character-driven plots, but in this case the characters are solid and unique as they all have their own ways of engaging their world, which makes this an entertaining read – so much so that you almost forget that the entire point of the plot is to track down the vaguely important “prototype.” Almost.
Content: Content-wise, this is a good choice for teen readers (chiefly girls, I would presume) who want to get their feet wet in the steampunk genre, but it’s also clever enough for adults to enjoy without grimacing.
Language – Essentially none.
Violence – There are perilous moments but these are softened thanks to characters’ witty responses to the danger they find themselves in. Likewise, the girls at the finishing school are taught how to use a variety of weaponry and deadly devices, but nothing ever turns bloody or gory. Lastly, though one character is a vampire, he is actually a noble gentleman who, more than once, puts himself in harm’s way to defend the school.
Sexual Content – None (save for general curiosities about boys and passing references to girls’ chest sizes).
Overall, Etiquette and Espionage is a light-hearted read that is rich with steampunk elements and amusing, engaging characters. While its lack of a strong central plot does cause its slower moments to feel slightly plodding, it avoids coming to a dead stop or becoming boring as Sophronia pulls back the layers of her world and invites us along for the dirigible ride – and a splendid cup of tea.