Sophronia Temminnick is not your ordinary proper Victorian young lady. More curious than genteel, concerned with the latest gadgets versus the latest fashions, she finds herself unceremoniously deposited by her desperate mother into the care of Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. At first horrified by the mere thought of a finishing school, Sophronia soon discovers that the school, its curriculum, and her fellow students are not quite what she initially thought they would be. She quickly finds herself in the middle of an elaborate mystery involving enigmatic prototypes, cagey schoolmates, and secretive professors, as well as lessons in knife-fighting as well as eyelash fluttering. It’s an unusual school for an unusual girl, and England will never be the same again.
The entire cast of characters in Gail Carriger’s Etiquette and Espionage (Finishing School #1) are delightfully eccentric. The use of typical, dry British wit only enhances the satirical nature of the story and quickly endears each character to a reader. It is difficult not to fall slightly in love with Dimity, a girl who really wants to be evil but likes sparkles and fashion too much to be truly dastardly. Then there is Vieve, the precocious niece of one of the head professors who refuses to wear proper lady’s attire but grudgingly admits it has its benefits in a werewolf attack. With her deductive reasoning, fearlessness, and complete lack of etiquette, Sophronia is definitely the leader of this eclectic club and lovable in her own right.
The mystery of the unknown and missing prototype is intriguing and helps move the plot. However, a reader shortly realizes that the main purpose behind Etiquette and Espionage is to introduce readers to Sophronia and her new finishing school. Ms. Carriger places emphasis on the most innocuous scenes, all but verifying that these scenes will be important in future novels and confirming that the first book in the Finishing School series is setting the stage for the rest of the series. This does not make the story any less enjoyable though, as a reader adjusts to this new version of Victorian England where finishing schools include lessons on poise and poisons.
Moira Quick is a delightful narrator, bringing to life the myriad of social positions and their corresponding dialect and accent distinctions. In a novel filled with satire, Ms. Quick balances the irony so profuse in Ms. Carriger’s novels without diminishing the innocence which imbibes the story with its heart and adds to its charm. Her voice is pleasing, while her performance is one of the few occurrences where it does not feel as if the narrator is reading a book but rather has become part of the story itself. Ms. Carriger’s stories are always enjoyable and highly amusing, and Ms. Quick’s performance serves to enhance those very elements that are the most entertaining.
Ms. Carriger has made a name for herself in the speculative fiction subculture of steampunk fiction. Her tongue-in-check portrayal of the highly proper Victorian era is always fun and funny. Etiquette and Espionage follows in the same vein, with its adorably quirky heroine, equally amusing supporting cast of characters, and enough steam-powered gadgets and robots to fulfill the heartiest steampunk fan. Sophronia and her new gang of friends are sure to delight as much in their future adventures as they did in their first year of school.