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Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger

Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger
Book Name: Etiquette and Espionage
Author: Gail Carriger
Publisher(s): Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Formatt: Hardcover / Audio Book / eBook
Genre(s): YA Steampunk / YA Fantasy
Release Date: February 5, 2013

For some people the formula for young adult steampunk seems simple.

Step 1: Find some classic science fiction from the mid to late 1800’s.
Step 2: Add a “plucky” heroine.
Step 3: Add a love triangle.
Step 4: ????
Step 5: Profit!

After careful sampling and many dents in the wall, I have discovered that my reaction to his kind of novel is best illustrated by young Tardar Sauce the grumpy cat: NO.

If only someone would swan in, take that five step plan outlined above, lament at how unfashionable and unflattering it is, and put forth something new. Oh wait, Etiquette and Espionage exists.

Sophronia gets recruited to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. Instead of simply teaching things like household management and bookkeeping as preparation for become a Lady of an estate, students are taught how to finish someone in the Mortal Kombat sense of the phrase and curtsy prettily while doing it. There is an unknown nefarious group pursuing the school for a prototype which was squirreled away by Monique, another student. Sophronia decides to figure out who wants it and where it is hidden.

The initial impression one gets while reading Etiquette and Espionage is that it is really quite silly. It looks like madcap school hijinks that are permissible only so long as one doesn’t get caught. It looks like an inordinate amount of focus on fashion and social rules and obligations. It becomes something very different, using those restrictions and expectations against themselves to disguise, mislead, and redirect with the intention to do so. Since everyone in the school is trying to learn how to do these things, everyone in the school has something going on that they want to hide. Sophronia really doesn’t want anyone to know how she gets around the restricted parts of the school undetected. All the teachers are also trying to cover things up, but their reactions when a student finds out what is going on, their reaction is more one of mixed praise (since the student is clearly trying to learn and apply those lessons on espionage) and discipline (the student got caught). Much of the time the conversations between the students and teachers have a subtext to them because the teachers know that the students are beginning to look for those cues and are interested in seeing what the students do once they figure it out.

Like the rest of the book, the characters initially come off as silly. Sophronia is introduced by her trying to navigate within a dumbwaiter and considered an unrefined pest by her mother, but what Sophronia needs is a creative outlet for herself. Dimity never stops talking about how she just isn’t the evil genius her parents are and how neither she nor her brother Pillover are quite up to par, but both of them are quietly creative in their own way. This is especially true when Sophronia finds the section of the school where the people who stoke the boilers in this steampunk setting are. The only person who ends up being exactly what they seem is Monique, who first shown as cannily deceitful and never stops being so through the book.

Those passingly familiar with The Parasol Protectorate books will recognize the very young versions of characters from that series. And also the way the technology involved is quite different between the two, what with mechanical butlers and maids in Etiquette and mostly human help-staff in the Protectorate books. It still has a similar sense of humor running through it and enough Pie in the Face jokes to satisfy one’s desire for a bit of slapstick. Actually…I just realized how important dessert is in this novel. It’s a bit of a running gag.

I enjoyed the book. I’ve gotten quite bored of several tropes in YA, not least of which has been the lack of anything even vaguely resembling a farce. When much of the fiction supposedly aimed at YA audiences is trying so very hard to prove that it is “serious business,” it was as refreshing as a summer blackberry and ginger trifle and just as enjoyable.


One Comment

  1. Avatar Elfy says:

    I adored Gail’s Parasol Protectorate and it sounds like this will be every bit as much fun. Thanks for the review.

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