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.