Etiquette & Espionage

By Gail Carriger
Published on February 5, 2013
Published by: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Source: Netgalley
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.

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.

First in a four book YA series set 25 years before the Parasol Protectorate but in the same universe.
We'll make this simple -- if you enjoyed Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series, or if you enjoy a light-hearted, whimsical take on steampunk, you will most likely love Etiquette & Espionage.  I have an admittedly low tolerance for whimsy and Carriger's one of the only authors who has been able to get me past  my dislike of cuteness and fripperies and characters with intentionally hilarious names and such.  So my review is a bit biased, in that I'm already a fan of the author and the universe that Etiquette & Espionage is set in.

This new series follows Sophronia as she begins at a finishing school that is unlike anything she'd expected.  There's plenty of eyelash fluttering and posture straightening, but there's also knife fighting and poison and information gathering.  Sophronia doesn't know this at first, but she catches on pretty quickly, and gathers herself quite the eclectic band of friends in the process.

I enjoyed Sophronia as a lead character, and I look forward to seeing her lessons continue as she grows into a proper lady (for a given definition of "proper").  Since she has little exposure to the world of mad scientists and espionage and the like, we learn a lot through her.  She has certainly got a lot of spunk, that's for sure.  Her friends are equally entertaining, from the fashion-forward Dimity (who certainly would get along with one Ivy Hisslepenny) to the gadget-fascinated Vieve.  The plot is a little thin, but for a first book which still needs to establish its universe and main players, it's enough.  Any more tentacles in this plot and it would probably be overwhelming.

I do think that some elements of this book work best for people who are already familiar with the Parasol Protectorate series.  There were certainly parts that I enjoyed more -- references to certain people, places, and things -- because I already had knowledge of the original books.  I can see how this book could be confusing for someone who wasn't already familiar with Carriger's Victorian steampunk universe, with its dirigibles and werewolves and mechanical butlers.  Not a whole lot is explained to the reader, so one may be at a slight disadvantage without already having knowledge of the previous worldbuilding that had been done.

I suspect new readers to the universe may wind up rating this book lower than people who have already come to love the first series, but I would urge readers to give it a chance anyway.  I personally highly enjoyed the story and only wish that it was longer, as it was a very quick read for me.  I'm definitely looking forward to the next installments in the series.

There is some mild violence (mostly involving explosions and some people getting tossed about), which comes with the territory of being set at a school teaching espionage, but otherwise it's a clean read. I think this book is fine for readers of all ages, even ambitious middle grade readers.

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