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.

 

The Quick, by Lauren Owen

Though the streets of London are dark, dismal, and
threatening, Owen has created a vividly illustrated cast of characters in The Quick, a novel that traces its grim
roots to Stoker, Wilde, and other authors of the now-famous Victorian
period.  In a city where the undead
stalk the streets and prey on the unawares, Owen’s creations burn brightly to
the bitter end.  And beyond. 

The
Quick
begins modestly as the story of
Charlotte and James Norbury, young children growing up in a great empty house
in Yorkshire with a rotating cast of governesses and servants to raise them
while their father is in London on business.  He returns to Askew Hall only in time to pass away, and for
his sister to take over management of the estate.  The Quick is a
novel in three parts, and for some readers it may feel a bit too disjointed,
but is worth the effort to meet the many compelling personalities in and about
London.  Many years pass and
readers are introduced to James as a young man, finishing at Oxford, going to
live in London to be a writer, and taking an apartment with another young man,
Christopher Page.  And things
spiral deeper and deeper into the dark side of London.

 Owen
spins her tale of undead existing among the living with care, hiding away her
secrets like the painting hung behind a door at the top of the stairs,
parceling out information in hints that will keep the reader interested even
over the course of the novel’s 500-plus pages.  In revelation after revelation, Owen builds her case for the
undead like Sherlock Holmes himself—when you have eliminated the impossible,
whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.  When, after the death of their aunt, Charlotte
can’t get in touch with James, she travels to London and instead finds quite a
different situation than she’d expected, and must make decisions she’d never
thought possible. 

The Quick is not just another novel
about vampires, but is a long exploration of the nature of desire: how it can
influence people in ways they could never have anticipated.  Readers of classic English literature
will enjoy the deft touch Owen shows when developing the mood and atmosphere of
her novel and its homage to Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker.  Those who enjoy seeing an idea
developed from multiple points of view, with care paid to how the same
situation can be viewed differently depending one’s relation to it, will be
attracted to the individuals of the story and how they move through the
plot.  Even though she hides Charlotte
away for nearly a third of the novel, Owen builds out her cast of characters
with strongly developed and interesting women, refreshing in a type of story
generally dominated by men. Both the women and men are drawn to the center of
the plot, forced to rely on their wits and talents to survive.  The final third of the novel is perhaps
drawn out more than necessary, but The
Quick
is still an engrossing and compelling read.