Book Review: Etiquette & Espionage, by Gail Carriger

When you’re packed off to finishing school as a ‘covert recruit,’ whatever on Earth that is supposed to mean, and learn that your school is decidedly irregular, how, precisely, do you cope? If you’re Sophronia, you take to your training as an intelligencer with relish, learning the finer points of deception, detection, and espionage along with knife fighting, parasol defense, and more…all while befriending the Sooties of the boiler room who keep your school afloat, and taking on your own personal nemesis.

Gail Carriger has plunged into the world of YA with the Finishing School series, of which Etiquette & Espionage is the first, and so far, I’m absolutely loving it. Which is not really surprising, because I adore Carriger’s deftness of pen, lightness of wit, and rich sense of humour. The Finishing School books are set in the same world as the Parasol Protectorate, looking back on an earlier time, but you’ll see some familiar faces (and devices) in these books.

These books are, however, distinct from her adult series. While they retain much of Carriger’s voice, style, and panache, they’re also very new and different, and not just because she adjusted for a younger audience. They’re also their own distinct series, with their own branding; there is, for example (and sadly), less obsession with food, even as wry comments about clothing choices still spatter the pages delightfully, reminding me of Ivy and her incorrigible hats. These are characters with their distinct lives and personalities, not tacked onto the adult series but flourishing in their own right—though I suspect that many people introduced to the world through the Finishing School books are going to want to pick up the Parasol Protectorate as well.

As a quick introduction to the world, Etiquette & Espionage made a great crash-course. Carriger plunges you right into the action and explains the key aspects of the worldbuilding along the way, rather than spending tedious time laying everything out while you long for something to happen. Sophronia is in trouble from almost the first page, and her sparkling personality proceeds to crash all the way through the rest of the book as she investigates, narrowly escapes trouble, befriends people, and lives in utter innocence of the fact that she can be quite beguiling when she sets her mind to it, which makes her all the more charming.

Along the way, she picks up a crew of friends, including people of mixed classes and races, which sets her apart from the society of her time. I’m glad to see Soap, a Black Sootie, integrated as a character who engages directly with race and confronts the attitudes of the white characters around him; I hope we see more of that as the series unfolds. While obviously Carriger’s books are, shall we say, not historically accurate, the period they draw upon did have an active Black community, and I like seeing their role explored, alongside that of the racism they encountered from the people around them.

Naturally Etiquette & Espionage also features vampires, werewolves, mechanicals, and other fantastical devices, in keeping with Carriger’s other work and the structure of the world. I will confess a certain fondness for the steampunk aesthetic (obviously, or I wouldn’t read so much of it) and it’s always intriguing to me to see how people handle the basic mechanical aspects of steampunk worlds. Carriger’s work, like that of many other writers in the genre, suffers from being specifically centred on Victorian England, rather than exploring the environment of the rest of the world; I long for more Cherie Priests pushing the narrative out to the US, and love the work done by people like the folks at Beyond Victoriana who challenge the idea that Steampunk must be set within a Western framework at all. But, considering what it is, Carriger’s is among my favourite of the Victorian-centred steampunks, as it blends a delightful and heady mix of fun, food, frocks, devices, and characters.

And I can’t wait to see where the Finishing School books go next, because there’s all sorts of splendid potential here. Who wouldn’t be fascinated by a finishing school that drifts above the Earth, floating through the mists when it needs to hide? Even better is the fact that the headmistress doesn’t even know what the school is really for, which leads me to imagine that there must be a fascinating backstory here to explain how the institution slowly became a training ground for recruits working in service to the crown. And, of course, the system of legacies versus covert recruits contains some interesting embedded comments on class and social structure; when girls are viewed with disdain because they weren’t, so to speak, to the trade born, that’s telling, and it provides a lot of room for discussion. I hope Carriger explores these even further in future entries in the series, because she certainly hasn’t shied away from confronting class in previous books, and I’m particularly glad to see her exploring race as another facet of society.

This is a series with tremendous potential, and I’m delighted that it came to be. I felt like the ending of the Parasol Protectorate left a void in my life, because the books were so very frothy and simply fun, and I’m glad that Gail and the lovely folks at Little Brown decided to fill that void rather than leaving me hanging. Now I have a whole new set of characters to fall in love with, inhabiting a familiar world and, of course, brushing up against some old faces that I’m delighted to see at earlier stages of their formation and life experience.

I mean, really. There’s a werewolf who wears a top hat, okay?