The first word that comes to mind when I think of Gail Carriger’s Etiquette & Espionage is ‘fun’. In an alternate Victorian Britain, characters with names like Sophronia Temminnick and Dimity Plumleigh-Teignmott attend a finishing school for girls located in an enormous dirigible that floats about over Dartmoor, where they learn both the correct placement of knives at a dinner table and how to use one to kill someone. Sophronia is a rarity at the school, a ‘covert recruit’ whose family are not familiar with its operations, but she takes to it almost immediately; she had never fit in with polite society, which is, of course, the exact reason she was recruited, though she struggles with some of the more etiquette-related lessons. After fourteen years of being chastised for her personality, Sophronia finds somewhere her curiosity and climbing skills are appreciated.
If you’re looking for a fun, light-hearted read, Etiquette & Espionage fits the bill. The overall tone is a bit younger than most of the YA I read, partly because Sophronia is only fourteen and partly because it’s less dark in tone. However, that’s what makes it such fun to read; the book absolutely revels in the more outrageous aspects of its world, like the brother school to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s, which teaches boys to be evil geniuses.
At the same time, there’s something incredibly clever about a finishing school teaching espionage. Like any finishing school of its era, Mademoiselle Geraldine’s places emphasis on correct manners. The girls learn to carefully control their behaviour, to choose every word and action according to the image they want to present. In a society where women have no overt power, their only power is covert. They learn the skills to manipulate people in mundane ways, turning their societal disadvantage to their advantage, but also to carry out covert spying operations.
This leads to a further subversion with Sophronia’s friend Dimity. A girl who likes pretty clothes and faints at the sight of blood, Dimity wants nothing more than to be an ordinary gentlewoman, even making rather well-meaning but ill-advised attempts to ‘civilise’ the sooties who keep the ship running. She would fit in perfectly at any ordinary finishing school, but at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s she struggles to learn the skills needed for espionage so as not to disappoint her parents. What I love about her portrayal is that, although her squeamishness is seen as a bad thing by her parents and the teachers at the school, the narrative never treats her as weak because of it, and Sophronia values her as a loyal friend.
At its heart, Etiquette & Espionage is a fun, rollicking tale, but it’s also a story about a teenage girl finding a place she fits in, and a fascinating exploration of gender politics in Victorian Britain. The first in a quartet, it’s enjoyable as a standalone, too, and the ideal choice if you’ve been reading too much heavy stuff and just want something fun. Did I mention there are werewolves? And vampires.
Nicola has always loved fantastical schools like Mademoiselle Geraldine’s, and so she was a little disappointed when she attended one of the oldest universities in Britain and found it entirely mundane. She got over it eventually.