Updated on February 11, 2015
Intelligencers and Assassins
I have an unfortunate proclivity towards British things–or, I should say, things written by British people. Literature, television, it’s all the same, really. (I should point out that this is only unfortunate because British authors seem less afraid of breaking their audiences’ hearts.) Which is why it came as little surprise when I found myself drawn to Gail Carriger’s Etiquette and Espionage.
Ms. Carriger tosses readers into the upper classes of a delightfully steampunk world. (For those of you who aren’t aware, “steampunk,” so far as I can tell, translates roughly into a Victorian England setting infused with vampires, werewolves, and the occasional mechanical being.) It is through this world that we follow one Sophronia Angelina Temminnick, a country girl of considerable social class, who occupies her time reading, climbing, and taking apart dumbwaiters. She can’t even curtsy properly. Mrs. Temminnick, at her wits end, decides to send Sophronia to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.
Little does she know that Mademoiselle Geraldine’s prepares girls to finish in a… different way.
And so readers are whisked alongside Sophronia, who is constantly getting into trouble while studying proper graces and subversive tactics in her floating boarding school. She’s joined along the way by professors, friends, a child who is gifted with inventing things, a boiler worker, a mechanical dog, and a demoted upperclasswoman who turns out to be Sophronia’s rival. (Not to mention the mysterious Picklemen and flywaymen.) Together, they enter a race to uncover the “prototype.”
And a delightful race it is. Carriger does an excellent job dropping hints about the setting without droning on for pages over minutia, and has a gift for characterization. Each piece of her story is connected in the larger whole; there are very few loose ends. For example, in the beginning of the story, Sophronia is quoted saying,
“But I don’t want to be a vampire drone… They’ll suck my blood and make me wear only the latest fashions.” (6)
It’s a one-off phrase that would be easy to miss if it wasn’t so comical. But later, at the school, Sophronia meets a man–one Professor Braithwope–who is said to wear the “very latest in evening attire,” not to mention that
He had a funny way of talking around his teeth. (67)
Further hints are dropped, and it soon becomes obvious that this man is–you guessed it–a vampire.
Her skill for subtle characterization isn’t limited to the supernatural beings in the story. In a few passages, Sophronia makes note of her classmates’ proclivities–sometimes about activities and how to use their time, and sometimes about what stick to use during knife lessons. It seems innocuous at the time, but Carriger brings them to bear later on.
Not all of the loose ends are tied at the close of the story–and I’m glad. Carriger has created a delightfully bright and gritty world, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next in the series–Curtsies and Conspiracies.
I’ll leave with one final thought: a favorite quote from the book–
“No one said learning etiquette and espionage would be easy, my dear.” (128)