A review by Nalini Haynes
Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger is set in the world of the Parasol Protectorate series, but some years earlier. The year is 1851. Sophronia Temminnick is a fourteen year old girl whose errant ways have earnt her the ire of her mother. The result? Sophronia goes to finishing school. Someone close to Mrs Temminnick recommended Mademoiselle Geraldine’s finishing school. En route to the school, Sophronia and her companions are attacked by flywaymen, similar to highwaymen except they use dirigibles instead of horses in their heists. During the journey Sophronia realizes Mademoiselle Geraldine’s is, indeed, an elite finishing school, but many of the lessons are less – or more – than traditional.
Dancing around spoilers
In an effort to avoid spoilers I’m not going to name many more characters. Suffice it to say that a number of characters from the Parasol Protectorate series feature in this new series as younger versions of themselves. Fans of the first series will be delighted with revelations of characters’ identities alongside the introduction of new characters.
Gail Carriger is an icon in Steampunk circles for good reason. Only this afternoon Joe Abercrombie (probably in this podcast – he’s been a guest a few times) commented that ‘steampunk’ is usually an aesthetic with no particular bearing on the story*. In contrast, Gail’s narrative breathes steampunk as an era and aesthetic. Steampunk isn’t just the setting, steampunk sets the social mores, steampunk features as part of the plot.
The times they are a-changing
In Etiquette & Espionage, society appears to be moving into a steampunk era with the younger generation newly acquiring steampunk fashions. The Pistons are an upper class gang at a school for evil geniuses. The Piston’s style of dress is typically steampunk: evening wear, top hats, cogs on the waistcoats and riding boots. Sophronia comments to herself on the inappropriateness of evening dress for the time of day while noting the addition of decorative protective eye-gear resting on the top hats. Later Rodney, a family servant, calls the Pistons dandies.
A key steampunk feature and plot point is the prevalent use of mechanicals as servants. This is the main point of inconsistency between the Parasol Protectorate and this Finishing School series but it may be due to the different environment or the time. (Update: Gail Carriger herself said the entire point of the Finishing School series was to explore the use of automatons and abandonment of that technology.) The use of these mechanicals is not a mere steampunk affectation. Mechanicals affected the plot, doubling as servants and obstacles an errant student needed to circumvent.
Supernaturals in society
As in the Parasol Protectorate, vampires and werewolves exist as an acknowledged part of society. Gail’s supernaturals are somewhat unique; explanations are forthcoming when the story engages with these creatures. Sophronia has led a quite sheltered life, legitimizing this learning process through observation and questions.
Feminism set in the Victorian era
Gail Carriger, advocate of parasols and Victorian dresses, may actually be one of the great feminist writers of this time. Gail’s acerbic observations on human nature, social mores and manipulations, are hilarious. Her commentary on the need to appear fashionable and the varying motivations driving that need is worthwhile reading, even more so with the subversive lessons. For example, mathematics lessons teach students to calculate how to poison half one’s guests while feeding everyone economically. Bigotry is mentioned in passing as is charity and the horror of making someone a ‘charity case’. This finishing school is training a generation of very capable young women who appear to comply with society’s strictest mores.
Furthermore, Etiquette & Espionage presents a ‘team’ of heroines who vary in skills and aspirations, each fitting a different role. Thus they embody the ideal of feminism as choice without discrimination. None of these issues are labored: without exception they are merely mentioned as part of a fast-paced narrative delivered almost in the style of comedic banter.
Etiquette & Espionage is another delightful novel from a masterful writer. The publisher lists this as for ‘children and teens’. BALDERDASH. While Etiquette & Espionage is entirely suitable for that audience, don’t let the target market put you off! This book is a treasure: a well-written book that will be loved by parents and grandparents as well as children/teens. Highly recommended for fans of adventure/comedy, steampunk and comedies of manners such as The Importance of Being Ernest.
* Joe Abercrombie talked about steampunk in this podcast early in November 2012.
Updated on 11 June 2023 to comply with SEO whims, fix broken links and to add mention of Gail Carriger visiting DMZ in this podcast.