Etiquette & Espionage is a novel for younger readers that takes place in the world of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series (I highly recommend that series to teens and adults who wish Jane Austen had a more supernatural and steampunk flair). It’s a Victorian setting in which vampires and werewolves live, more or less peacefully, as part of society. Dirigibles are a viable form of personal transportation, and mechanical butlers and maids serve in the most fashionable homes.
We meet Sophronia, our heroine, in the midst of an escapade with a dumb waiter. She’s soon sent off to finishing school—but it turns out that, unbeknownst to her mother, it’s a finishing school for spies and assassins. Many families knowingly send their girls to this school, and their boys to a boarding school for evil geniuses. The finishing school floats well above the ground, thanks to dirigibles.
Sophronia soon makes friends with Dimity, from a family that fully embraces the evil lifestyle. Dimity, who faints at the sight of blood, and her younger brother Pillover, who does useful things when he means to be destructive, are a bit of a disappointment to their parents. Sidheag is from a family of werewolves (readers of the Parasol Protectorate will be able to identify her family) and Vieve, who dresses like a boy and loves engineering and inventing, is the niece of Madame Lefoux (also from the Parasol Protectorate). Soap is one of the sooties who keep the dirigibles in the air. The characters are amusing and enjoyable.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
It is a school for spies and assassins. Lying, subterfuge, sneaking around, and learning how to hurt people is what it’s all about. The girls do word problems about how to poison only half your dinner guests. Despite this premise, it’s not a dark or violent book. There’s a certain amorality to it, though.
OK, there is some fighting several times. And in theory, the flywaymen and other villains would happily kill Sophronia and her friends if that’s what’s needed. But most people would prefer to handle things with polite conversation and social games. Facing things bluntly and head-on is considered rude and lower class. Life threatening situations are faced with a minimum of hysterics.
Sexism and Stereotypes
There’s a bit of a boy vs. girl vibe with the two schools competing and cooperating with each other. Girls are of course dismissed as inferior, but not only do the characters ignore such comments, they quietly defy them in everything they do. The girls are frequently reminded to watch their figures—which Sophronia initially takes literally. There are comments about the size of bosoms, and it’s clear that having enough of a bosom to fill a corset (although not too much) is very preferable.
Sophronia loves to figure out how things work and Vieve loves to invent things. Vieve defies all feminine convention, dressing and acting like a boy, while Sophronia makes her mechanical bent part of her femininity.
Soap is “colored” which is a cause for much comment—except from Sophronia and Vieve who are quite open-minded about it. When people bring it up, Sophronia deflects the conversation since Soap’s skin color is irrelevant to his worth as a person or her friend. Dimity starts to ask if he knows their stable boy who is also “in color,” since obviously all colored people must know each other. Racism isn’t portrayed so much as evil as just narrow-minded.
Although there are no romantic relationships, the girls frequently fawn over boys—Sophronia does not, so her attraction to Soap stands out all the more. Sex is mentioned, much to the embarrassment of all the girls. Marrying well is one of the things that is expected of good female spies.
Of course this is a big deal. That’s part of the point of books like this. The fact that Sophronia befriends Soap is as shocking because of his class as it is because he’s a different race. The lower classes are to be ignored, not sought out and befriended. The sooties could get in huge trouble for going up top, just as Sophronia could ruin her reputation being found with the sooties. However, when an instructor does discover her friendship with the sooties, he quietly encourages it—getting to know people from other classes can be very useful.
A mechanical dog “poops” out whatever it eats, along with some ash. This is, of course, quite embarrassing to all involved.
Away at boarding school, family hardly matters. Parents are preoccupied with other issues. Children are inconveniences until they’re useful. There’s nothing malicious or particularly dysfunctional, but parents are mostly non-issues except for when they’re in the way or might possibly be useful. Dimity and Pillover claim to dislike each other, but they actually get along pretty well.
I really enjoyed the book, although this isn’t surprising as I enjoyed the Parasol Protectorate. I would recommend it for slightly older tweens (11 or 12 seems about right) only because of the moral ambiguity and the need to read between the lines slightly to see that the novel is actually against racism, classism, and sexism. My 12 year old daughter has started reading it and is thoroughly enjoying it. I’m curious what my 11 year old son will think—the book seems aimed toward a female audience, but he’ll find plenty of characters he’ll enjoy and he’ll love the mechanicals and mechanimals.
She loved it. Intensely. She can’t wait for the sequel, which we already have preordered (Curtsies & Conspiracies).
Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger
Published in 2013 by Little, Brown and Company
First in the Finishing School series, followed by Curtsies & Conspiracies, Waistcoats & Weaponry, and Manners & Mutiny
Read my personal copy