Saturday, January 9, 2016

Etiquette & Espionage (Gail Carriger)

Etiquette & Espionage
(The Finishing School series, Book 1)
Gail Carriger
Little, Brown Books
Fiction, YA Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Sophronia Temminnick, youngest daughter and greatest embarrassment of a minor well-to-do family, never wanted to go to finishing school. She'd much rather spend her time dismantling the automatic dumbwaiter and climbing around with the stable boys than learning a proper curtsy or worrying about dresses. But once her mother's mind is made up, there's no changing it. Besides, there's something very odd about Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. For one thing, the recruiter appears to be hiding something - something valuable enough to prompt robber flywaymen to attack their carriage. For another, the academy is aboard a massive airship. The classes range from dancing to daggerplay and posture to poisons. Sophronia was afraid she'd be bored out of her mind at a finishing school, but all too soon she finds more excitement and danger than she could ever have hoped for.

REVIEW: This young adult series is set in the steampunk/fantasy Victorian world established in Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series... which may partially explain my issues with it. Perhaps, had I been familiar with the other books, I would have had an easier time swallowing bad guys called Picklemen and the overall silly air that permeates the entire novel, a silliness that completely negates any sense of gravity or danger despite frequent talk of death and assassinations. This silliness carries over into Sophronia's supposedly brainy personality; in a world with vampires, upon encountering a man with fangs - fangs that are made quite obvious when he gets something stuck to them, a glaring red flag as other characters literally point at the fangs in front of her - must she really have to be told well after the fact that this man is, in fact, a vampire? Apparently so. Earlier, she had similar issues identifying a werewolf, even when the wolf form wears the same top hat the man himself wore not five seconds before she sees the beast... though she does manage to work out that identity on her own. This is the clever, spunky heroine I'm supposed to be rooting for? Really? The usual suspects of a young adult school-based fantasy come into play - the New Best Friend, the Instant Enemy, the Secret Plot All The Teachers Are In On, the Cute Animal Sidekick (a mechanical dog named Bumbersnoot, which is largely comic relief), and plenty of late-night skulking and spying and plotting - amid a setting hung with the usual steampunk/fantasy trappings of airships and gears, and the stiff upper lip of Victorian England pushed to absurd degrees. Some of the elements of the setting were intriguing, such as the advanced mechanical servants and the concept of aether that interfered with long-range communications, but the vast majority of it was just window dressing and MacGuffins. I never felt particularly engaged with the world, in other words. There was also a smattering of racism that felt like Carriger was trying far too hard to both acknowledge that black people existed in Victorian times and downplay the dark side of prejudice. Add in an ending that left too many loose ends (and went out of its way to damage no more than the odd petticoat and lilac bush), and I walked away decidedly nonplussed. It hits the marks if you're looking for a steampunk Victorian young adult adventure, but it just didn't click with me.

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