Monday, January 11, 2016

Review: Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger

[Warning: Minor Spoilers Ahead]

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Goodreads Summary:

It's one thing to learn to curtsy properly. It's quite another to learn to curtsy and throw a knife at the same time. Welcome to Finishing School.

Fourteen-year-old Sophronia is a great trial to her poor mother. Sophronia is more interested in dismantling clocks and climbing trees than proper manners--and the family can only hope that company never sees her atrocious curtsy. Mrs. Temminnick is desperate for her daughter to become a proper lady. So she enrolls Sophronia in Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.

But Sophronia soon realizes the school is not quite what her mother might have hoped. At Mademoiselle Geraldine's, young ladies learn to finish...everything. Certainly, they learn the fine arts of dance, dress, and etiquette, but they also learn to deal out death, diversion, and espionage--in the politest possible ways, of course. Sophronia and her friends are in for a rousing first year's education.


I have a strange fascination with boarding school fiction, despite having read very little of it. Because this book is boarding school fantasy, it immediately drew my attention. What I did not know, however, was that this book is also steampunk fiction, a genre which I had never read anything from. So when I started the book, I was initially confused by the airdinghies and the mechanicals. Yet once I had oriented myself, I fell in love with the characters and the setting while developing a sudden desire to explore the steampunk genre.

The thing I loved most about this book is Gail Carriger's treatment of femininity. It always bothers me when authors put tomboy characters in books who are eventually "reformed" and turned into proper young ladies who don't care about climbing trees but only about needlework and clothing. It also bothers me when tomboy characters are put in a situation where they are supposed to act ladylike but firmly despise all such feminine activity and rebel against society. Carriger didn't go down either of these roads.

Sophronia Temminick, the main character in Etiquette & Espionage, starts out as a total tomboy. She dreads the idea of going to a finishing school where she will be forced to stop all adventures and instead learn to be proper. Yet, as she soon finds out, the finishing school she goes to has a certain twist--at the school girls train to become ladylike assassins. By the end of the book, Sophronia finds that she does care to a certain extent about her appearance and behavior, but she never loses the sense of adventure she started with as her training in espionage has only enhanced her skills. With this type of character development, Carriger shows that traditionally feminine qualities and tomboyish qualities are not mutually exclusive. You can love both makeup and race-car driving at the same time. Furthermore, Carriger demonstrates that just because something is "feminine" does not mean it's inherently wimpy.

I also greatly appreciated the fact that Carriger did not make Sophronia a stunning beauty. Quite the contrary, she is described as "mousy." But instead of making a big deal about how plain Sophronia is and how she has been forced to learn to ignore that part of herself, Carriger mentions the fact once or twice and then lets it be, allowing the reader to focus on other details of Sophronia's character besides her looks.

In addition to these pros, I also loved the comedic writing style, the creative classes at the school, and the varied cast of characters.


The story line was at times slow and rather simplistic, and Sophronia and her friends managed to slip out of most perilous situations with relative ease. Never once did I worry about the characters' fates. Also, there were no plot twists that I can think of. Everything happened about as I expected. A few more twists and a little more tension would have made the book five-star-worthy.

Overall, this is an enjoyable and light read that provides a pleasant little escape for those in need of a laugh.

Now I’m going to do a breakdown of each element of the series, judging it on different criteria. I’ll rate each element on a scale of 1-5, 1 being bad, and 5 being amazing.

Plot: 3

Complexity: 3
Creativity: 4
Believability: 4
Surprise: 2

Characters: 5

Depth: 4
Personality: 5
Believability: 5

Writing Style: 4

Description: 5
Tension: 2

Overall Score: 4

Happy Reading!


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