Brunch Book Club Review: Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger

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etiquette and espionageFourteen-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.

Full confession: I adore Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series. When I heard that she was writing a YA version, albeit set twenty-five years earlier than Alexia’s time, I was both excited and hesitant. Could she pull it off, using younger characters who may not be able to use the subtleties of society’s rules for humour and narrative purposes? Could anyone take the place of Alexia Tarabotti and Lord Maccon in my heart? The short answer: happily,there’s room in my heart for both.

This series starts with a bang – literally – and you are dropped right back into the world of steampunk, vampires, werewolves and proper Victorian society. I’ll admit that if you aren’t already familiar with Carriger’s world, then this would be a rough introduction. There isn’t much to explain the background of the world, or why vampires and werewolves are so accepted in society. If you are a fan of the adult series, then you definitely have a leg up here. If I hadn’t already been acclimatized, the first few chapters might have put me off.

Once you get into the story, however, you find that Sophronia is a wonderful heroine; she’s smart, capable and wants more from her life than just to mince about in society like her sisters. When she is plucked from home to attend Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing School, she very quickly figures out that she will be learning much more than just proper curtseys and how to pour tea. I loved the whole concept of the school, to be honest. The idea of a finishing school that teaches you to spy and, well, finish people off is hysterical, and the discussions on how much poison is appropriate for a dinner part of six really made me laugh. I loved that Sophronia’s eccentricities were actually assets for her, and that her mechanical abilities were admired rather than reviled.

Sophronia is also not perfect, nor are her classmates. This series has left room for them to grow and discover who they are meant to be, and I’m glad that they weren’t wrapped up too neatly by the end of the first book. They are teenagers, and as such, they sometimes make Bad Life Choices that have consequences. There are lots of glimpses of character who will go on to be important in the other series – lovely little Easter eggs for the devoted – but you don’t lose anything if you aren’t aware of their future endeavours.

“Mummy and Daddy want him to be an evil genius, but he has his heart set on Latin verse. Don’t you, Pill?” The boy gave his sister a nasty stare. “Pillover is terribly bad at being bad, if you take my meaning. Our daddy is a founding member of the Death Weasel Confederacy, and Mummy is a kitchen chemist with questionable intent, but poor Pillover can’t even bring himself to murder ants with his Depraved Lens of Crispy Magnification. Can you, Pill?”

The humour is part of why Carriger’s books are personal favourites. There are so many wonderful throwaway lines in the book, and she managed to skew Victorian values to great amusement. Add to that the world of espionage and assassins, and there is a wealth of subject matter to be mined. I really enjoy how Carriger takes the unusual and makes it seem perfectly ordinary; after all, have you ever considered the problems of choosing a husband from the ranks of budding evil geniuses? It would be terribly difficult!

“It’s no good choosing your first husband from a school for evil geniuses. Much too difficult to kill.”

During our discussion, both Ardo and Michele commented that they couldn’t get over some of the use of language; I had less of a problem with that, because i read it in the context of the time period. It wouldn’t be a regular appearance to see a person of colour, and the language used around that encounter would definitely not be considered PC by today’s standards. I can see their point, however, and I do feel that Sophronia can be a little … dense at times, perhaps because she has been sheltered for most of her life.  I think that the plot definitely picks up once the girls are established at the school, and story goes along at a great clip until the exciting conclusion. By the mid-point of the book, the characters have settled into themselves, and they are able start to interact and adventure in ways that demonstrate their character, rather than explain.

Will I be reading the next book in the series? Absolutely, and likely the third as well. Gail Carriger continues to be a favourite, and I’m even more excited for Prudence now!

Did you read our Brunch Book Club selection? Leave your thoughts in the comments below! 

Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger was purchased by me, and is published by Hachette – Little, Brown & Company. It is available for purchase at your favourite indie bookstore, as well as other bookstores and online retailers. ISBN: 9781907411588, 320 pages.