Etiquette and Espionage is Gail Carriger’s first novel for teens, set in the same world as her much-acclaimed Parasol Protectorate series for adults. I went into this book pretty blind, not having read any of Carriger’s adult titles or knowing much about the world she created in them. What I did know is that they are funny, romantic, historical, and not your usual paranormal fare. That appealed to me, and the premise of her YA book – about a girl sent to a Victorian finishing school that teaches the traditional womanly arts as well as espionage and murder, covertly – was enough for me to want to read it, despite my general avoidance of paranormal stories.
And Etiquette and Espionage is a lot of fun, mostly. It features a fourteen year old girl named Sophronia who loves to get her hands dirty playing about with the various mechanical creations in her steampunk-y world. This is seen as very unladylike and gets her into trouble. Her mother is fed up with her daughter’s behavior and ships her off to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. There, Sophronia learns that the school is not all that it seems: she’ll learn how to curtsy, but she’ll also learn to kill.
This information is presented to Sophronia in a very matter of fact way, though she learns a lot of it on her own. The girls and teachers at the school all take it for granted, treating their topics of study as quite natural, and therefore it comes across as quite funny to the reader, who witnesses Sophronia’s bewilderment and dismay. The main plotline, though, involves the theft of a mysterious prototype. Sophronia and her close friend at the school, Dimity, get themselves involved in figuring out just what this prototype is, why it’s so important to so many people, who has stolen it, and where it’s been hidden.
Etiquette and Espionage is a very funny book. Here’s a line that made me giggle: “A mustache was perched above his upper lip cautiously, as though it were slightly embarrassed to be there and would like to slide away and become a sideburn or something more fashionable.” It’s full of writing like this, so it’s certainly no boring read.
It’s a little uneven. The plot featuring the prototype isn’t terribly exciting (I kept on wanting to go back to Sophronia’s classes and learn more about poisoning people), and the worldbuilding left a lot to be desired.
I think I would have gotten a lot more enjoyment out of the book if I had read the Parasol Protectorate series first, which is concerning, since they target different audiences. I know that the vampires and werewolves play vital roles in the adult series, but here they felt extraneous and not very well-incorporated into the world. Sophronia’s friendship with two other girls at the school, Sidheag and Agatha, is built up pretty late in the book and then dropped. I believe one of those girls has important ties to characters in the adult novels, but again, I wouldn’t know. The prototype, too, remained a mystery to me, though the characters themselves seemed to understand it eventually. Perhaps there is more information about it in the adult novels, too.
I know many, many YA books are being bought and read by adults now, and maybe some publishers and authors are playing into this, hoping fans of the adult series will buy the YA as well. But it doesn’t sit quite right with me. I want teens to be able to read books targeted for their age group without needing to read “up” first.
That said, I did have a lot of fun reading Etiquette and Espionage, and I think a lot of teens will too. It’s frequently hilarious, even if the plot and world-building are a bit weak, plus it features a group of girls being taught to spy and kill while also learning the proper way to curtsy. Historical institutions that outwardly teach respectable topics to their female participants while covertly instructing them in violent, dangerous, and/or and illegal pursuits tend to go over well (think of the assassin nuns, Victorian spies, and others that have populated YA books recently).
Review copy received from the publisher.