There’s part of me that hates the Victorian idea of what it is to be English. The assumption of civilised superiority. The implicit acceptance of class structures. The restraint that means people don’t express their opinions and feelings. The compulsion to dress up smart.
But there’s another part of me that’s rather in love with it all. The top hats and tailcoats. The wordplay and games of manners. The little rituals of dining and tea drinking. The opportunity to dress up smart.
It’s that part of my brain, the rose tinted window onto Victoriana, that led me to pick up Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger, and I’m really glad that I did.
World building and whimsy
E&E is the first in a series of YA steampunk fantasy adventures. I say YA, but I get confused about where the boundaries between that and midgrade fiction lie. Suffice to say that a crochety Englishman in his mid-thirties is not the target audience.
And yet I really enjoyed it. The story of Sophronia’s first year aboard a finishing school for lady spies is full of fun and whimsy. The fact that it’s an airship school with a vampire, a werewolf and a boiler room full of grubby urchins helps. It’s a nice example of setting up a world, in which a bigger picture is hinted at but not always explained, giving it some depth.
The whimsy isn’t just a matter of setting, it’s in the way that the story is told. Two pages in and we’re being told that Mrs Barnaclegoose ‘was not the kind of woman who appreciated the finer points of being crowned by trifle’. I’d quote half a dozen more fine examples, but I was reading Laura’s copy of the book so I didn’t want to go folding pages and scribbling notes. But if you’ve ever uttered the words ‘oh I say!’ at a charming line of writing then you’ll do that roughly every dozen pages.
The whimsy of plot and writing mesh perfectly together to create a cohesive tone that’s charming and refreshing.
I bigged this book up in my previous post on character names, and rightly so. But it’s about more than just names.
Sophronia is the sort of wilful young lady who’s the perfect protagonist for a story for children. This is the sort of role model I want for my nieces – not some ball-gowned Disney princess, but a young lady who clambers and plot and sneaks and disassembles the dumb waiter, while still learning what appearances can achieve.
The other characters are what you’d expect from a fantastical girl’s school story. There’s the bully, the mousy one, the sporty one who doesn’t like having to act like a lady, and assorted teachers who grow to trust our hero. I also enjoyed the sooties, the lads in the boiler room who keep the place running. I’m not entirely comfortable with the jolly acceptance of class divisions, but this isn’t the book to address that issue. Maybe another time…
The wide range of characters means we don’t get many in any depth, which is a shame. But again, this is an establishing book in a series for young people, and this seems in keeping with that format.
No book is perfect, and for me the weak point here was the plot. I never felt any sense of urgency or pressure to address the supposed main issue. But as this was mostly a way to lead Sophronia into exploring the school and its inhabitants I wasn’t too bothered.
And by ‘not too bothered’ I mean I read it in hundred page chunks without pausing to stretch my legs.
What have I learned from this as a writer?
I’ve seen a great example of strong narratorial voice that runs against my own tendency to try to fade into the background. Something for me to play with there.
I’ve seen how, even in a male-dominated setting, you can build a book around a group of varied and interesting female characters.
I’ve been reminded of the power of a good one liner, which regularly got me turning to Laura to say ‘listen to this one…’
So anyway, that’s what I thought. How about the rest of you? Who’s read this? What did you think?