When we first meet fourteen-year-old Sophronia Temminnick, she’s trying to descend via dumbwaiter to eavesdrop on Mrs Barnaclegoose, a friend of her mother’s who has arrived for tea with a mysterious stranger in tow. After a catastrophic accident with a trifle and a very strange interview (in which Sophronia gets a pillow thrown at her head for her trouble) with a woman purporting to be the proprietor of Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing School for Girls, Sophronia finds herself instantly and summarily banished to said school, where her mother hopes she will improve her curtsy and become a proper lady.
As it turns out, Mademoiselle Geraldine’s is no ordinary finishing school—the fact that it’s a mobile trio of dirigibles and retains a vampire and a werewolf on staff is just the beginning. True, the girls learn the finer points of etiquette, dance, and dress—but the curriculum also includes “modern weaponry and technological advancements … intelligence gathering, of course, principles of deceit; fundamental espionage; and rudimentary seduction.” It’s not a school for Sophronia and her classmates to be finished before their debut in society—it’s where they learn how to finish “anything or anyone who needs finishing.”
Sophronia has her hands more than full in trying to negotiate her highly unusual education whilst also contending with a classic older mean girl determined to take her down a peg or three. There’s also a mysterious “prototype” that leads a group of flywaymen (like highwaymen, but airborne) to attack Sophronia’s carriage on the way to school. She’s backed by an entertaining supporting cast—Dimity, whose father is a founding member of the Death Weasel Confederacy but who faints dead away at the sight of blood; Sidheag, who was literally raised by wolves; and Phineas B. Crow, aka “Soap”, one of the “sooties” whose labour keeps Mademoiselle Geraldine’s airborne. Eventually she will learn why the girls of Mademoiselle Geraldine’s are instructed to keep scissors, perfume, handkerchiefs, and hair ribbons on themselves at all times—and exactly what the prototype does, why everyone wants it, and where it’s been hidden.
Etiquette and Espionage kicks off Finishing School, Gail Carriger’s new series set in the same fantastical steampunk world as her Parasol Protectorate series. Of course, as with much YA fiction these days, the book’s appeal crosses generations; Carriger’s whimsical sense of humor and lightness of touch is entertaining regardless of age. In Carriger’s world, a werewolf would never dream of being seen without a top hat, regardless of his physical form—even if it means tying on said hat with a string. And a vampire can easily be distracted by a stain on his waistcoat.
It’s also fun to see Carriger avert an action-girl trope—especially common in YA, it seems—of denigrating or devaluing traditionally feminine pursuits: fashion, coiffure, jewelry, and so forth. True, Sophronia has a talent for climbing down the side of a dirigible and for properly caring for and feeding a clockwork dachshund—but she knows that sage green won’t flatter her complexion, and eventually she does learn how to execute a proper curtsy. The alumnae of Mademoiselle Geraldine’s move seamlessly in society and can faint as prettily as anyone (only if required as a distraction, of course), but they are formidable spies and know their own minds quite well. It seems very likely that the resourceful Sophronia will be one of their star graduates.
The “prototype” is not the most satisfactory of MacGuffins—its purpose is a mystery for a long time and once revealed, doesn’t seem to be all that dramatic. It exists solely to drive the plot and to propel Sophronia’s curiosity, and thus her education both formal and ad-hoc. Still, as weaknesses go, this is hardly the worst, especially when there is so much enjoyment to be found in the rest of Carriger’s world and her engaging heroine.
Etiquette and Espionage is published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. It is available now.