Etiquette and Espoinage, Book 1 in the Finishing School Series by Gail Carriger, 237 pp, RL MIDDLE GRADE

Etiquette and Espionage is the first book in Gail Carriger's Finishing School Series, which marks her first foray into the world of YA. Carriger's first series, The Parasol Protectorate, is set in an alternate-historyVictorian England that combines steampunk (quick definition: a sub-genre of science fiction set in an industrialized England and featuring steam-powered machinery, for Carriger's definition, click here) with paranormal romance and, surprisingly, humor. Carriger sets the Finishing School Series series in the same world, with only the merest hint of romance - in this first book, anyway. I listened to the audiobook, which is BRILLIANTLY narrated by Moira Quirk who takes on any number of accents and characters.

When we first meet our heroine, the very curious and extremely industrious fourteen-year-old Sophronia Angelina Temminnick, it is 1851 and she is inside a dumbwaiter, attempting to spy on her mother and the meddling Mrs. Barnaclegoose, a "large woman of progressive inclinations," as they take tea. Things go quite badly for Sophronia, who is catapulted out of the dumbwaiter and into the maid Eliza, who is carrying an enormous trifle. Things go from bad to worse when Sophronia learns that her mother is meeting is mysterious lady who, Sophronia's older sister Petunia insists, is here to indenture her to "vampires for a proper education." It turns out that Sophronia is being sent off for an education, but not as a vampire drone. Instead, she is whisked off almost immediately to Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality by the mysterious guest, Mademoiselle Geraldine herself. Happily for Sophronia, finishing school is not at all what she anticipated. The carriage ride alone, where she meets another new student, Dimity Ann Plumleigh-Teignmott (a fine comic sidekick) and her little brother Pillover, an oiled-greatcoat, oversized bowler-wearing, bespectacled grubby boy headed for Bunson and Lacroix's Boys' Polytechnique. Before they can get to know each other, their carriage is attacked by flywaymen - highwaymen who travel by air - demanding something from Mademoiselle Geraldine, who seemingly crumples, leaving the children to their own defenses. While the flywaymen are pillaging the luggage, Sophronia cuts their airdinghy loose and commandeers the coach, knowing full well "how inappropriate it was for a young lady of fourteen to drive a coach."

The action and intrigue continues on at fast pace for the rest of the novel. Miss Geraldine is in fact Miss Monique de Pelousse, a student in her final year at the school and in the process of completing her "senior project." As the carriage heads across a mist-covered moor, after leaving Pillover at Bunson's, the girls learn that the school itself is a mass of dirigibles chained together, "like a caterpillar that has overeaten, " Sophronia observes. The girls are catapulted to the landing platform of the school on the back of Captain Niall, a werewolf, and instructor at the academy. Besides a werewolf professor and a vampire professor and other curious instracutors, the academy is packed with interesting characters. There is the real Mademoiselle Geraldine, the one person who thinks that the academy truly is a finishing school meant turn out well rounded, marriageable young ladies rather than spies trained in all manner of stealth - Mademoiselle Geraldine remains in the dark in order for the girls to practice their skills, such as passing notes while dancing, on her. Then there are the classmates. From the headstrong, proud Sidheag (pronnounced "Sidday") Maccon, Lady Kingair (a distant relative is Lord Maccon, a character in the The Parasol Protectorate) who was raised in a "werewolf holding," and Presha Buss who "thinks she's smarter than everyone, when really she's just meaner," and the frumpy, shy Agatha Woosmoss who "looked like she ought to be someone's maiden aunt." Then there is the wonderful Vieve, an intellectual, engineering-minded nine-year-old with a gift for invention and free run of the ship thanks to the fact that her aunt it Beatrice Lefoux, one of the heads of school. Vieve appears as an important (and adult) character in The Parasol Protectorate, as does a relative of Sidheag's. After Vieve, my favorite character has to be the charming Phineas B. Crow, called Soap by everyone ("Because I needs is more than most") who is the head sootie, the name given to the boys who stoke the immense boilers that keep the academy afloat.

And, of course, there are the mechanical devices that populate this world. There is Bumbersnoot, the mechanimal that the flywaymen catapult onto the deck of the academy to deliver a warning message and is secreted away by Sophronia. While mechanimals are not allowed at the academy, Bumbernoot stays well hidden and even plays a pivotal role in the climax of Etiquette and Espionage. Other mechanical wonders include servants that run on tracks laid throughout the academy and Bunson's. Then there is the mysterious machine at the heart of the intrigue in Etiquette and Espionage that Sophronia searches for throughout the story. Carriger is a master when it comes to cramming details into every page of her writing and the world she creates is immediately imaginable. Her descriptions of everything from the clothes to the social and cultural aspects of this world. There are the Pistons, an exclusive school club at Bunson's that put "smudges of coal about their eyes" and skulk about in riding boots and black shirtwaists with cogs sewn to the breasts of their jackets (in a "non-useful manner") "being all gloomy about the state of the Empire" and tormenting other boys at school. There is Dimity's love of garish jewelry and Pillover's Depraved Lens of Crispy Magnification and of course, the silver and wood hairsticks with amethyst inlay that are actually anti-supernatural weapons and the exploding wicker chicken, the mention of which prompts Dimity to query, "Who doesn't want an exploding wicker chicken?"

Readers who enjoyed Etiquette and Espionage  and are interested in reading more steampunk for YA and middle grades should check out:

The Leviathan trilogy by Scott Westerfeld:

The Fever Crumb trilogy by Phillip Reeve, which is a prequel to his Mortal Engines series.

 The Larklight trilogy by Phillip Reeve, which takes steampunk into space:

Book 2 - Curtsies and Conspiracies is out now
Book 3 - Waistcoats & Weaponry is due November, 2014 
and Book 4 -  Manners & Mutiny is anticipated for 2015

and, for adults, 
The Parasol Protectorate

Source: Purchased Audio Book

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