Etiquette & Espionage, by Gail Carriger

Being the first of the Finishing School series, Etiquette & Espionage is an irreverent take on the concept of the finishing school of the 19th century at which, it was believed, a young woman could learn everything she needed to know about getting a husband and then being a proper lady and wife.  And then Carriger adds werewolves, vampires, steampunk, and assassination.

Told from the point of view of Sophronia Angelina Teminick, the tale begins with an unfortunate climb up a dumbwaiter, a characteristic antic of the young protagonist, who is a trial to her parents, a menace to the mechanics who serve in the household, and an annoyance to her siblings.  In a last-ditch effort to make her acceptable in society, Sophoronia’s mother begs Madame Geraldine to accept her into Madame Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality and, miraculously, Madame Geraldine accepts.  And it’s all downhill–or rather, up in the air–from there.

Other than the characters being younger than I expected–most about 14–I wouldn’t have classified this novel as anything other than fantasy–fantasy of manners, steampunk, etc–but after finishing it I found out that it was classified as YA.  Carriger’s worldbuilding, which relies on aspects of the ridiculous to establish a world both vastly different than our own, and yet hardly different at all, interrogates particular tropes in fiction as well as the ways in which patriarchal society affected women in the Victorian period and beyond, in a way that is anything other than immature.  I was particularly struck by the ways in which Carriger used fashionable dress itself as a weapon, and how feminine attire has devolved, even as it has become more superficially ‘useful’ to making women generally defenseless, not-dangerous, because there is nowhere to hide anything that might be used as a weapon.

On the whole I found Etiquette & Espionage to be a fine example of what Renay, over at Ladybusiness, describes as the main point of steampunk, which is to break up the cultural norms that rule society and allow for subversion of the assumptions upon which the real-world model is built.  It makes excellent use of the fantasy of manners subgenre, showing the reverse side of what politeness and proper behavior is all about.

The only complaint I might make is the novel’s treatment of gender from within.  It is all well and good to depict a society in which appearance is everything, but there were times when Sophronia as narrator expressed harmful stereotypes about gender presentation and body size, without those descriptions later being fully exposed as such.  Sophronia is later seen getting to know those people who had earlier described as deviating from the desired norm, but those characters do not always get full agency, or Sophronia is not always forced to reckon with how her assumptions about them might have been harmful.  Had Sophronia been shown to be a more fallible, less reliable narrator, her descriptions of people might be more easily subverted in a way that aligns with the otherwise feminist nature of the novel.

 

Advertisements

It Takes Two: Magical Women with Manners

This installment of It Takes Two deals with two novels that fall into the fantasy of manners subgenre in a very unique way.  Both Shades of Milk and Honey (SoMaH), by Mary Robinette Kowal, and The Beautiful Ones (BO), forthcoming from Silvia Moreno-Garcia, feature women main characters who practice particular forms of transformative magic within their worlds.  They also feature main characters who align with the “ugly duckling” or “cinderella” trope which is popular in fantasy stories that include romantic relationships as a main plot driver.

Let’s start with the setting.  Though BO is set in an alternate world, it resembles 18th to 19th-century Europe, particularly France, in important ways, including the implied technological timeline, patriarchal values, style of dress, and emphasis on the fashionable “tonne.”  Correspondingly, SoMaH is set in an alternate England, and closely models the 18th-century world of Jane Austen’s novels.  Even though these novels are not set in the same world, they feel as though with a quick train ride, Jane could be in Loisail to visit Nina, and they could talk about art and bugs and societies that don’t value the magical abilities of women in the same way they do with men.

Which brings us to the second, and perhaps most satisfying similarity between the two novels: women using magical abilities as an important plot element.  Not only are both of the main characters magically talented–Jane uses glamour, while Nina is telekinetic–but we have love interests for each main character who are also magic users and whose abilities give them much more social and economic currency than is available to the women.  Jane is lucky enough that modest use of glamour brings her a certain amount of attraction, because glamour falls under the “category of skills and talents that all gentlewomen should have,” however Jane has a markedly higher skill level with glamour and so it becomes a liability at times.  Nina’s telekinetic ability has made her a social pariah since she was a child, and a large motivator for the plot comes in her family’s sending her to the big city of Loisail for the Grand Season in an attempt to marry her off to someone who has never heard of the Witch of Oldhouse, her family’s country estate in Montipourret.  People see her ability, and willingness to use it, as a marker of her childishness, untrustworthiness, and lack of ladylike manners.

To add insult to injury, Jane’s love interest is a man who travels as an artist, using his ability with glamour to successfully support himself and gain fame, while Nina’s love interest, Hector Auvray, is a world-famous performer with his telekinetic ability, who has made enough money in ten years of performing to set himself up comfortably for the rest of his life.  It is not surprising that people with the same talent would be drawn to each other, as friends and lovers, because in straight-laced societies it is nice to have someone who understands the restrictions under which one lives, however what does it mean that magical women end up with men whose practical societal advantages are compounded by their ability to freely and productively use their magical ability, where the women are not?

It is largely a convention of romantic plot building that makes this kind of resolution possible.  Something built into the story makes them an unlikely pair from a conventional standpoint–Jane is a “spinster” at 28 years old, while Nina is an unmannered country girl who is more interested in collecting bugs than collecting suitors and fancy dresses–which calls for a “happy” conclusion involving the social outcasts finding common ground and respect in a society based on having the right connections and conforming to superficial norms.  In both stories, the magical abilities of the characters has the potential to disrupt the mannerly societies in which these characters are mired, and it is almost as if the young women’s choosing to acquiesce to the love plot and form traditional romantic relationships is necessary for the ability of the story to end, in essence for the magic to let go of the characters and allow for the more palatable, more acceptable focus of marriage.  To contrast, Sarah Monette’s The Goblin Emperor doesn’t need the happy resolution of a traditional love plot to find its end.  Instead, it is the main character’s ability to make sense of the rigid society into which he has been thrust, and come to terms with its demands upon himself that wraps up the novel.

Perhaps it’s a function of the strict economies upon which these stories are based, with social capital being so closely tied to personal wealth due to its requirement for appearances, and the potential for magic to circumvent this structure in some way, or maybe it’s something else that drives the resolution.  Either way, both these stories have a unique chemistry that is highly satisfying on a number of levels.

The Beautiful Ones, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The most interesting thing about the fantasy of manners sub-genre is how the world delineates those who belong, and those who don’t, and this is often the center of conflict for the love-interest couple.  Now, of course, not all fantasy of manners stories have a major love interest, but there is an important relationship that is the focus of the story, otherwise we wouldn’t have the sub-genre itself.  In The Beautiful Ones, the haves–in the country of Levrene, and particularly the fashionable city of Loisail–are the Beautiful Ones themselves, those with money and social standing, who decide what is fashionable, what is proper, and what is interesting.

Social customs and societal expectations in this novel are drawn from many European analogs in the 17th through 19th centuries and have at their center both the restrictions of patriarchy and the lure of curiosity that often crop up in Victorian literature.  Hector Auvray, the love interest, is a performer, one who uses his talent with telekinesis to improve his social standing.  He is able to do this in part because he is a man, and his efforts fall under the guise of ambition and vigorous effort prized in the culture of Loisail.

The Beautiful Ones finds its way out from under its own reliance on well-known fantasy romance tropes in its vigorous interrogation of the patriarchal leanings of its society and, in turn, our own.  The growth of its characters, particularly Nina and Valerie, is satisfying, and though much of the plot could be intuited from the set up, the way in which Moreno-Garcia follows through with her characters and doesn’t allow them to sink under their own weight is what makes this novel not just readable, but highly enjoyable, from beginning to end.

The juxtaposition of two main characters who share the same telekinetic talent, but belong to different genders, creates a lens through which to understand just how much the artificiality of society pushes people in one direction or the other for purely arbitrary reasons.  While Nina may be born with admittance to the class of the Beautiful Ones because of her family’s money and position it is, in the end, her willingness to condition herself to the behaviors expected of a woman of that class that arbitrates her belonging to that group.  While Hector is able to use its standard sets of behaviors as a guidebook to entry, where getting a certain number of rules correct gives him a way in, Nina can much more quickly be tossed out for breaking even one rule.  The human desire to belong, as well as to be free, motivates The Beautiful Ones on a deep level, leaving the reader with a lot to think about at the end.

This novel explores the depths of emotion and motivation to which people can sink, while holding onto a foundational joy and love of life that comes across as genuine, rather than sentimental.  Moreno-Garcia’s writing is colorful and evocative of a world in which appearance and display are paramount.  There are some lovely scenes in which old or abandoned places not only contrast beautifully with this magpie culture she’s created, but also create a tension between antiquity and modernity that, rather than being resolved by the end, linger on the palate for a long while after finishing this novel.