Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger
Series: Finishing School #1
Genre: YA, steampunk
Published on February 5, 2013
Published by Little Brown
Read From: 9.28.13 - 9.30.13
Fourteen-year-old Sophronia is a great trial to her poor mother. Sophronia is more interested in dismantling clocks and climbing trees than in proper manners - and the family can only hope that company never sees her atrocious curtsy. Mrs. Temminick 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 they 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.
Character: Sophronia is an immensely wonderful protagonist. She's well aware of society's propriety standards and shows proper shock when they are not adhered to, so she fits in well with the story's era. However, Sophronia is also intensely practical and will often ignore propriety when circumstances dictate quick thinking and immediate action. She will not expose her petticoats if she can help it, but if she needs to make a quick getaway, petticoats are the least of her worries. But what I loved most about her was her inquisitive mind. Sophronia loves seeing how things work, and she doesn't like being left in the dark on certain matters. In her quest to find answers, she often becomes absentminded about what society deems correct for young ladies, and I can hardly fault her for that. She also has a great sense of humor, which I always appreciate in a protagonist. I adored Dimity - the daughter of an evil genius family who can't stand the sight of blood and is really only interested in becoming a proper lady - and Vieve; an eight-year-old girl who appreciates fashion, but much prefers to traipse around in boy's clothes. Monique was so wonderfully easy to despise, with her constantly turned up nose and tendency to cause trouble for everyone else. Though I do get the sense that there just might be a possible reconciliation with her in the future, sadly. But I could be wrong. And I cannot believe I'm saying this, but I actually really liked the vampire - mostly because he was a classic vampire, and not this newfangled type. And let us not forget Bumbersnoot, the mechanimal dachshund, who logically shouldn't have been as cute as he was.
The Romance: There isn't any! Not even with the girls have big crushes on Captain Niall, the werewolf. I suspect Sophronia and Soap may grow to really like each other as the series progresses, but for now it didn't bother me, and I don't think it will in later books, either. I like both Soap and Sophronia; Soap was amusing and useful and an all-around nice guy. And Sophronia is too practical to ever become silly.
Plot: Sophronia Temminnick lives in an age where young ladies are supposed to conduct themselves with propriety, with gentleness, and grace. Their lives are to revolve around social visits, finding a husband, and looking their best. Unfortunately, Sophronia most decidedly does not fit into this mold of the ideal Victorian woman. She likes to take machines apart to see how they work - and horror of horrors, she has a horrible tendency to climb trees. She is not quiet, she is not demure, and there is not an ounce of grace about her, as is evident in her atrocious curtsy. There is only one thing that a mother can do with such a troublesome daughter: send her off to finishing school. Sophronia, of course, rebels at the very idea, and she is quite certain that she shall hate Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. But when Sophronia discovers that the academy is, in fact, a giant airship, and that there is a werewolf and a vampire on staff, she begins to suspect that etiquette is not the only thing this academy teaches. And indeed it is not. While students certainly learn how to serve tea properly, curtsy, which spoon to use when, and how to dance, they also learn much more covert skills. Things like poisons, passing secret messages in a crowded a environment, the best way to assassinate noblemen, and sabotage. And all in the most proper and ladylike manner possible. But when Sophronia joins the ranks of rich young ladies, the school is experiencing some trouble with flywaymen (sky pirates). It seems that they are after a special prototype - what it is a prototype of, no one will tell Sophronia. But one of the school's operatives was charged with safely delivering it to the school, and now the operative has turned rogue and hidden the prototype from both the school and the flywaymen. It isn't any of Sophronia's business; she ought to be practicing her curtsy. But Sophronia has never backed down from an adventure, and she's not about to change that practice now. This is probably the story's weakest point, because while there is a spy and espionage plot going on among all of the daily academy comings and goings, not much of the story focuses on it. The difficulty with the prototype is mentioned just often enough to keep it at the forefront of the Reader's mind, but nothing concerning it ever really happens until the end. It is, because of this, a rather tenuous plot. However, I was so swept away by the world building that I honestly didn't notice this flaw until well into the book. I have not read the Author's Parasol Protectorates series (yet!), so this is the first time I have been introduced to this steampunk world of hers. And I loved it. Airships, clockwork machines, and classic literature supernatural elements (i.e. classic werewolves and vampires) is a combination that I absolutely love (at least, I do now), and added onto it was pure quirkiness. I just couldn't help but fall in love with this world. Ideally, I would have preferred a stronger plot, but I have confidence that we will get more of that in later installments. The Author wanted to set up the school in this first book, and I can appreciate that.
Believability: Not applicable. Though I must note with great glee that the Author has clearly done research into proper Victorian customs and proper social conduct. Research that many Authors feel like they can neglect in steampunk stories (because they're making everything up, right?), but I think is imperative to make a more colorful and somewhat believable world.
Writing Style: Third person, past tense. Aside from the world building, the writing is the second element that caught my enthusiasm so thoroughly. Quirky, witty, whimsical, and Dickensian, I couldn't help but love the Author's style. It was everything I love in a Victorian/steampunk novel.
Conclusion: Time is running out for Sophronia and her friends to find the prototype before the flywaymen and the dastardly (and mysterious) Pickleman they work for do. Sophronia believes she knows where it's hidden, and unfortunately retrieving it is going to involve possibly upsetting her older sister's coming out ball. An act which Mumsy may never forgive her for. With such a quirky book, an equally quirky and somewhat convoluted climax fits better than it would in other stories. But it could have been a little less odd, with just a tad fewer moments of chaos. This may just be personal preference, though, since I have never been a great fan of chaotic moments. Whether or not Readers tend to agree with me in this instance, there's no denying that the end does make up for some of the drag earlier in the story. I didn't really know what I was expecting when I picked up Etiquette & Espionage. I had been told that it was a little odd, and my past experiences with female assassin stories has not been all that great. I was not expecting such hilarious writing, or such wonderful characters - and I certainly wasn't expecting to like a vampire. As a matter of principle, I don't like vampires beyond Count Dracula. But I found myself laughing all the way through this quirky little book, and I can't wait to see what happens to Sophronia next.
Recommended Audience: Girl-read, fourteen-and-up, great for fans of steampunk, quirky stories, and books like Kat, Incorrigible and Patricia C. Wrede's books.
Others in the Finishing School Series:
1)Etiquette & Espionage
2)Curtsies & Conspiracies