Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger is a middle-grade novel set in a steampunk faux-Victorian England. It features the story of Sophronia, a young woman from a middle-class background who is recruited into a finishing school that teaches, you guessed it, etiquette and espionage. It was delightful and stupid and not very well-written, with truly dreadful attempts at Anglicisms, and I enjoyed it nevertheless.
Firstly, I have to get a couple of gripes out of the way so that I can get on with enthusing. There is a certain amount of suspension-of-disbelief that I expect going into a novel about a steampunk finishing school where some of the teachers might be paranormal beings, but there were times when small details really ruined the illusion. For a start, it’s fairly clear that Carriger has never actually met a British person, because all the characters call everything “topping”, like some terrible Blyton parody (and even Blyton was never half as bad as this). There’s a Scottish girl whose thick Scots dialect appears and disappears on a whim, often within the same sentence. At one point, a character is described as having a burr in their accent that indicated they could be from “the north country or possibly the East End”. No. No. Yorkshire and Whitechapel do not have interchangeable accents. That is like saying that someone sounds like they could be “from Brooklyn or maybe Texas”. These issues were annoying because they could have been fixed so easily during the editing process without disrupting the story at all.
I also didn’t realise that this was middle-grade when I picked it up – it was in the SFF section of the library, not children’s lit. On the basis of the Harry Potter comparison on the cover, I was expecting it to be YA. Instead, it was clearly targeted at a much younger demographic even than the early Potter books, despite a couple of weird, tone-deaf sexual jokes. I think that preteen children picking this up would probably love it, but I am not a preteen and I could have done with a bit more depth to the characters. That’s not a criticism of the book, just of the way that it’s being marketed. The whole time I was reading this, I really wanted it to be a television series. It reminds me strongly of The Worst Witch (which it is much closer to in terms of target age), which adapts very well for TV. I think that a capable screenwriter could probably smooth over the clunky dialogue and make the action sequences spring to life.
Having said all that, once I got into the book (which did take a couple of chapters), I enjoyed it very much. In many respects, it was just a mash-up of different children’s books and genres, but it was pleasantly silly and very entertaining. For example, it contains many characters called things like “Mrs Barnaclegoose” and “Dimity Plumleigh-Teignmott” (though I never understood why Sophronia’s surname was “Temminnick”, which doesn’t even look like a word). Very shortly after Sohpronia was introduced, we see her causing a Trifle Incident while hiding inside a dumbwaiter. The plot is jam-packed with japes and capers and shenanigans, in a way that was somehow exactly what I wanted to read. In particular, there are a lot of very funny action sequences, mostly involving Sophronia climbing up or down walls that she is supposed to stay within.
At its core, the novel is about “the prototype”, a mysterious object that Sophronia and her friends spend most of the book investigating and looking for, and that did hold my attention well enough for my sleepy post-thesis brain. I don’t think that there is ever much explanation about how the prototype works (though maybe that is addressed in the second book), but that didn’t much bother me – it was clearly an excuse to put the characters in a variety of implausible situations and see how they reacted. I enjoyed watching the girls use the various skills they’d been taught during the climax of the novel (hey, I’m an educator, after all), which takes place at a dutifully ludicrous ball – that was very satisfying. I find balls terribly boring in most books, as I suspect I would in real life – so watching one get disrupted due to cheese pies and disobedient teenagers was very entertaining.
In short, though this book is nonsense and also terrible, I read it in a single sitting. If you have also just been through a gruelling month and now your brain only has 4% battery remaining, you might like it too!