Carriger’s YA debut Etiquette and Espionage starts out with a bang–both figuratively and literally–as the heroine Saphronia Temminnick tumbles out of a dumbwaiter and catapults trifle all over her mother’s friend, Mrs. Barnaclegoose, at afternoon tea. This fiasco only heightens Mrs. Temminnick’s resolve to send her to finishing school, in the hopes that it will transform her into a passable lady.
When Saphronia is attacked en route to this school by a brigade of pesky flywaymen, it quickly becomes clear that Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality teaches more than just social graces. A rare undercover recruit, Saphronia stumbles into a world of curtsies and chaos the likes of which she had never imagined. At an institution where etiquette, espionage, and assassination are taught, the concept of “finishing” takes on the full weight of its double entendre.
Set in the alternate steampunk reality of her adult “Parasol Protectorate” series, Etiquette and Espionage serves as a prequel of sorts, taking place twenty years before the events of the Alexia Tarabotti books. Like one expects with the course of actual history, however, the worlds of the Parasol Protectorate books and Etiquette and Espionage are not one in the same. Rather, the passage of time makes social mores stricter and technologies different. Intriguingly, inventions in this earlier version of Carriger’s steampunk England seem more advanced. From the carriage with automated roof removal, retractable footstool, and collapsible tea caddy to Saphronia’s contraband mechanimal to the dirigible school building, Etiquette and Espionage, more so than the Parasol Protectorate books, is a steampunk fantasyland. It is this attention to detail and focus on immersive, innovative worldbuilding that is one of Carriger’s greatest strengths as a writer.
Outside of the fascinating, highly entertaining worlds she creates, Carriger’s knack for molding great characters transfers well to the young adult genre. Saphronia–what a name–is a delightful heroine. Her internal dialogue brings to life the characters and the world around her. Sharp and funny, without being snarky or petty, Saphronia seems to have finally found a place where she belongs in Mademoiselle Geraldine’s school. Adventurous without being unfeminine, Saphronia quickly gathers her own coterie of unlikely friends and allies, from the budding inventor Vieve and Soap the sootie to Sidheag Mason. Readers of the Parasol Protectorate books will enjoy a glimpse into the early lives of some of the series’ characters.
While the story does unfold around a bit of adventure, Etiquette and Espionage focuses more on unveiling the characters and the day-to-day of Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Academy. This is where Carriger’s delightful sense of humor really comes into play. From lessons in flirtation and fainting as a diversion to the many uses of handkerchiefs, Carriger devises a quirky, smart curricula for her characters.
As always, Carriger’s one-of-a-kind voice carries her book. Etiquette and Espionage is a droll, witty read that will surely leave you laughing. I will be first in line to buy the sequel when it is released in October.