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Girl with a hat

REVIEW: Etiquette and Espionage

Etiquette & Espionage: Gail Carriger. Atom 2015 (reprint).

‘This is the right finishing school for you, isn’t it?’

Set in an alternate steampunk universe in the Victorian eta, this story made me guffaw a good bit and turn pages, wondering quite what might happen next.

The fourteen-year-old youngest daughter of four girls and I-couldn’t-work-out-how-many brothers, our heroine is not at all ladylike enough for her mother, having a good deal too much curiosity and not enough regard for her clothes or manners in satisfying it. She is informed, after embarrassing a family friend, that she is to leave home and go to a finishing school.

She is not impressed by the idea, but Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality is not the school Mrs Tremminick or her daughter think that it is. Oh no. In fairness, it may not be the school that its headmistress thinks it is, either.

I haven’t read that much steampunk, so the mechanicals and dirigibles integrated into Victorian life, were a lot of fun, although they might not be for a more jade palate. I also don’t know whether vampires and werewolves often turn up in this subgenre of speculative fiction. But, as you know, I have read a fair few modern boarding school stories, and few of them have such gusto about them. So yes, there are a few anachronisms – the girls sound like twenty-first century Americans as much as they do Victorian young ladies, and while ‘topping’ and ‘spiffing’ are proper English slang, they’re seventy years away from the time the story is set. But when Carriger is having such infectious fun, who cares?

For example, all the names are perfectly ridiculous, from Sophronia Tremminick, our heroine, onwards. I’m not going to list the rest, you can discover them for yourselves. There’s a lot of humour out of Victorian attitudes to ahistorical, fantasy elements – the penchant for covering up and hiding the inner workings of everything is applied broadly and hilariously; the way that some things are unladylike or ungentlemanlike, but the obvious course of action when in a jam, and Sophronia is the kind of heroine to take it; and how class, town vs. country and other staples of English social comedy cause tension.

I haven’t read anything by Carriger before, but now I get why she’s so recommended. Sophronia is an intelligent, resourceful and plucky heroine - something of an underdog as a disappointment as the young lady she is expected to be, she finds her metier in a school that trains its pupils to be spies...or assassins. She makes both a friend and an enemy before even reaching the school, and the girls, professors and other people at the school are a lively and varied bunch.

I thought there was a touch of Mary Poppins and her Bert in Sophronia and a certain Soap. I was reminded a little of Meg Cabot’s YA take on Regencies, but this is better, and as inventive as the modern-day-set Gallagher Girls series. I look forward to getting my hands on the next instalment of Sophronia’s education and adventures very soon.

This entry was originally posted at http://feather-ghyll.dreamwidth.org/111152.html. Please comment wherever you prefer to.

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February 2018

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