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.
If you are familiar with Carriger’s adult steampunk fantasy series The Parasol Protectorate you will be aware of her writing style and tendency to create characters who are larger than life and would most probably be considered batty in some circles. Sophronia being utterly unladylike and having hobbies and pursuits that do not suit genteel ladies is much more than her mother can handle. So she is rather abruptly sent off to a boarding school with the strange headmistress that she only just made the acquaintance of.
Thus begins Sophoronia’s adventures. It is a pleasure to finally meet a heroine who has mad escapades and is utterly capable of handling herself and others beside. Sophronia is one of my favourite protagonists because Carriger gives her just the perfect amount of courage and confidence that is tempered by vulnerability and the ability to ask for help. She is not perfect and that is what, ironically, makes her a perfect protagonist. As I have come to expect from Carriger, the side characters are also well developed and characterized with vibrant and wonky personalities of their own.
My favourite part of the novel might be the portrayal of the gradual cohesion of a sisterhood between very unlikely girls. They do not just immediately become friends. There is a journey to it and a fight, or two before the circle is completed. The steampunk portion is very much present and not just present in shades. In fact, I think the reader will be delighted by the location of the school itself. I know I was. The romance is also intriguing. It doesn’t figure too much at the moment considering it is a girl’s school and Sophronia and her cohorts are still only fourteen but the potential love interest is an interesting one and a bold move on Carriger’s part. It introduces diversity to a genre that is starving for it.
As a premise to a series, Etiquette and Espionage delivers on all accounts. As I mentioned previously, mad escapades, a mechanimal that poops ash (no seriously, how are you resist that?) and a heroine who manages to bring down balloons with the help of her trusty sidekicks. I also really liked how the ending of the novel is a reflection of the beginning. I recommend this very strongly. March to your nearest bookstore and grab a copy as soon as you can.