Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Etiquette & Espionage (Gail Carriger), A Review

Title: Etiquette & Espionage
Series: Finishing School Book the First
Author: Gail Carriger
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Edition: Advanced Reader Copy (ARC), 2nd Read
Genre: Young Adult Paranormal Steampunk
Rating: Teen (some violence, rule-breaking throughout, the viscous mauling of both an undergarment and an outer-garment, implied tipsiness, several instances of assault by food, and Pickelmen)

Summary:
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, more interested in dismantling clocks and climbing trees than proper etiquette at tea -- and God forbid anyone see her atrocious curtsy. Desperate for her daughter to become a proper lady, 
Mrs. Temminnick 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.

I describe it as... Harry Potter meets Jeeves & Wooster. Or, if Jane Austen wrote Harry Potter after apprenticing under P.G. Wodehouse and H.G. Wells.

Writing
Ms. Carriger's style is easy to read and highly engaging - both times I read this book I breezed through it. She has a prim wit and a deft hand for excavating levity from the formal dialect of Victorian English. Her skill especially shines in dialogue:

"What's that?"
"Oh, that? That's just Pillover."
"And what is a pillover, when it's at home?"
"My little brother."

She also has a comical way with names, from places to people (Lord Dingleproops) to things (the "Depraved Lens of Crispy Magnification," for example). In this area she really reminds me of a female P.G. Wodehouse, which makes sense as she claims the author as an influence.

Setting
Ms. Carriger's world is an altered version of our history that runs with the question of, "What would things have been like if there really had been supernatural beings living among us?" With her knowledge well grounded in actual history (in her former life she was an archaeologist), she effortlessly explains how vampires would've obviously had a hand in this or that fashion craze, and werewolves most certainly would've been a pivotal aspect of the British military. While adding supernatural creatures into the mix may sound like a vast alteration, Ms. Carriger's world is still so very familiar that you can't help but wonder if perhaps it might really true after all...

Characters
Sophronia is highly inquisitive and not unlike a sponge in the way she soaks up information, secret or otherwise. While her feminine ways are in desperate need of refining, it's obvious from the start that she has a bright (and rather unladylike) future ahead of her. She is one of the strongest, most unflinching and capable female characters I have come across in a long while - she makes her own questions, roots out her own answers, and doesn't look to a boy or an adult to save her (unless it's her idea, of course).

As for the supporting cast, Sophronia's best friend Dimity, with her love of shiny things and propensity to faint at the most inappropriate moments, is the perfect companion, confidante, and conspirator. And one cannot help but fall in love with Sophronia's "pet" Bumbersnoot, although I still suspect him of ulterior motives of espionage. The other girls in her study group (elegant and inelegant alike) round off the cast nicely, as do Sophronia's "unseemly" companions belowdecks, and an assortment of eccentric teachers.

Ms. Carriger has a delightful way of describing, and especially introducing, characters. All are colorful and highly entertaining - not a boring one in the bunch. Not even the lowliest character goes forgotten once Ms. Carriger gets done with them.

Story
This is truly a tale of etiquette and espionage - and the hijinks that ensue from both. It's a classic "first year at boarding school" story, with all the intrigue of making new friends, new enemies, and the constant investigation to discover the mysteries of the school itself. The plot is fun and engaging and a journey of a mystery that Sophronia is more than willing to take. She bravely powers through every obstacle and roots out the answers through newly-endowed stealth, the right (and wrong) kind of acquaintances, and a great deal of climbing. Think of her as Harry Potter, but with more social restrictions and gobs more spunk and gumption.

Further Comments
I'm not usually much for steampunk (typically too technical for my palette), and my love affair with the paranormal wore off a while ago. But Ms. Carriger's fresh take on both is such that even the likes of me can be engaged and entertained. Her steampunk feels natural, not a showy spectacle but an everyday part of the setting. And the supernatural beings are not fearful creatures that stalk the night, but just another, albeit unusual, ethnic group one stumbles across in evening society.

My Only Complaint
The opening scene (aka "The Incident with the Dumbwaiter (and the Trifle)") was rather a disaster. I couldn't follow it at all, it was so choppy and confusing. I didn't even realize Sophronia was actually in the dumbwaiter until she launched herself out of it! This is the sixth book I have read by Ms. Carriger, and her other five opening scenes were stellar, so I honestly have no idea what happened here. Whatever you do, DO NOT judge this book by its opening scene. Because you will miss out on an absolutely wonderful book if you do.

Three things to expect: Traversing, transformations, and transmitters.

My Etiquette & Espionage Love List (in no particular order)
  • Bumbersnoot (but of course!). For who couldn't love a small mechanical weiner dog?
  • The Depraved Lens of Crispy Magnification.
  • Professor Brainthorpe's moustache, and the description thereof (see below).
  • The abundance of cravats. So much fun to read and say and such a dashing addition to a man's ensemble. I wish they would come back in style.
  • Vieve. Because I have always adored her - why not now?
  • Cheese pies. Although quite messy, they are a must at any ball worth attending.
  • A werewolf in a top hat.
  • The "light" repast that is Mademoiselle Geraldine's breakfast. Brunch. Lunch?
  • Pillover. I really don't know why, but I hope there are great things in store for him. One of which being, possibly, Sophronia's hand?
  • Using "stoat" as a descriptive word for a person.
  • Because of course, "Who doesn't want an exploding wicker chicken?"

Favorite Lines (because with Ms. Carriger there can never be just one)*

"A headmistress isn't interested in education."

"He...boasted an unassuming mustache, which was perched atop his upper lip cautiously, as though it were slightly embarrassed to be there and would like to slide away and become a sideburn or something more fashionable."

"No, dear, don't curtsy. I couldn't bear it - not twice in one night."

"It'll all end in tears and oil."

*All quotes were taken from the Advanced Reader Copy and are not final proof.

I'm still wondering... What is dangerous about a robin in a bowler?

Lesson Learned: Like a man and his towel, a woman should never be without a handkerchief.

Conclusion
Etiquette & Espionage is a highly entertaining read that I shall recommend to anyone and everyone for years to come. I look forward to Book the Second, Curtsies & Conspiracies, later this year with immense anticipation!

Recommend?: But of course!

Book Website: www.finishingschoolbooks.com

Etiquette & Espionage releases February 5th (next Tuesday!), and I highly recommend you pre-order your copy today at your local independent bookstore or any of these fine establishments:

Barnes & Noble   The Book Depository   Amazon   Changing Hands

ANNOUNCEMENT
Be sure to check back Monday, February 4th for an exclusive interview with the author herself, Gail Carriger! She will discuss her transition into Young Adult and even give a sneak peek of sorts into Book 2!

1 comment:

  1. Oh my goodness, this sounds AMAZING! Thanks for the review! Adding it to my list. :)

    ReplyDelete