I received and ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. All of the opinions below are my own.
Published 2013 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (Hachette Book Group)
This is my first foray into steampunk (or maybe steampunk-lite). I was a little wary about beginning with a YA entry, especially one set at an all-girls’ school, but I was very pleasantly surprised. I had heard good things from friends about Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, so when and ARC of Etiquette and Espionage (which is set in the same world) became available, I decided to take a chance.
Fourteen-year-old Sophronia Angelina Temminnick is a hopeless case. The youngest daughter of a well-to-do country family, she should not be climbing, taking machines apart, and spending her free time with stable boys. Her exasperated mother decides to send her to finishing school, hoping to make her into a lady at last. What Mrs. Temminnick doesn’t know is that Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality has a very different definition of “finishing” than your average ladies’ school.
The story is a mash-up of steampunk, paranormal adventure, and boarding school novel, though the school is really the heart of it all. The friendships and rivalries between the girls are very believable and are really more important than the paranormal and fantasy elements to the success of the story. Sophronia becomes friends with a hyper-feminine and frilly girl name Dimity, but also forms alliances with the tomboyish Sidheag, and the painfully shy Agatha. Carriger provides a wide range of female experience- the extremely feminine and the outright tomboy each have their place, and the divisions are rarely black and white, but rather each character occupies a different place on the gender performance spectrum (I know I’m reading into this a bit much, but I think it’s one of the best elements of the story). She also introduces issues of race and class through the character known as Soap, a “sootie” who works in the boiler room. I was a bit nervous about the racial element- so much of the book is intended to be humorous, and introducing race relations into a Victorian comedy requires some finesse to not be crass or offensive, but I think she pulled it off nicely.
Carriger’s world building is very well done; everything fits and she never really info-dumps to get the laws of her alternative-Victorian England across to her readers. Anyone who has read the Parasol Protectorate series would already be very familiar with this world, but even those unfamiliar with her fictional universe (like me) should have no trouble grasping the technological and social underpinnings. There are obviously some recognizable elements for anyone with even limited knowledge of Victorian novels in general- the ridiculous names, the seemingly pointless social niceties and the wonky gender dynamics are there, but warped to fit a more fantastical model. Vampires and werewolves add paranormal to the mix, while the “mechanicals,” steamships, and “flywaymen” (flying highwaymen) bring the steampunk with aplomb.
There are a lot of great elements here, and I really liked Sophronia and her mix of feminine and masculine traits that allowed her to succeed on her own terms. What held the book back from a higher rating for me is just the weakness of the overall plot and some issues with flat characters. There are a few too many moments of convenience to keep the plot held together, though I think this is a common issue in the opening novel of a planned series and it doesn’t deter me from wanting the read the next one. As much as I liked the dynamics of the school, I felt it was underpopulated, as far as recognizable or named characters, and many of the more minor characters are simply “types” that don’t add much to the story- had they been just a little more fleshed out, I think the school scenario would have felt even more alive. There were also some occasional instances of really flat writing and weirdly inappropriate moments (a character having the “urge to giggle” when seeing a woman being struck by a man is off-putting, especially as this is a middle grade to young teen read). And even Sophronia had “chosen one” moments that detracted somewhat from her growth throughout the story. But overall, this was a funny and engrossing read.
I have spent a long time avoiding steampunk- so few of the books seem to go beyond pulpy nonsense- but this was fun and gives me hope enough to try a few more from other authors and see if it is a subgenre worth sticking with.
(Cross-posted at Goodreads: Review: Etiquette and Espionage)
Bookish Bingo entry: Steampunk (http://great-imaginations.com/2014/09/bookish-bingo-fall-edition/)