Gail Carriger’s Curtsies & Conspiracies (& Consequences)

Young adult fiction is a potentially powerful thing. At its best it explores the emergence of adult emotions and a sense of self. It shows characters finding purpose in a world that seemed beyond their control. It’s aimed at an age group who are forming their reading habits for life, and could be forever turned into bibliophiles by the right book.

This doesn’t mean that a YA book needs to be as emotionally draining as The Hunger Games. There’s also a place for a something jollier and more light-hearted, something that lures you round to a serious point through a fun adventure story.

In short, there’s most definitely a place for Curtsies & Conspiracies.

Curtsies & Conspiracies


A splendid sequel

C&C is the sequel to Etiquette & Espionage, about which I enthused in a previous post. These are the stories of Sophronia, a young woman at a unique steampunk finishing school, where she is learning to be a spy. In the background are the machinations of strange factions within Victorian English society, including vampires, werewolves and the mechanically-minded Picklemen. As befits a would-be spy, Sophronia’s life is increasingly tangled in this world of supernatural politics.

All the positive things I said about E&E hold true for C&C. Gail Carriger has a wonderful way of evoking the Victorian upper crust atmosphere. You can hear the collective voice of that era in the way that the characters talk, the things that concern them, the details they notice in the world around them. Class structure matters. Etiquette matters. Dress and appearance matter. These aren’t shallow characters, but they are working within a mental framework that can feel absurdly narrow to a modern reader.

Yet I bought into it. I accepted it on its own terms. I revelled in it, and enjoyed playing along to its own internal logic, where the way a woman faints in can give away her intent, and where a gentleman may be judged by the band around his hat.

Action and reaction

Sophronia continues to be a splendid central character, the sort of skilled and purposefully disobedient role model I like to see. But in this book we start to see that her actions also have consequences, not all of them good.

This is an area that’s tricky in a spy story, where the central skills of the protagonists are lies and deception. Think for a minute about James Bond. Sure, the most recent films have touched on the dark side of the spy game, but on the whole the franchise has skimmed over the fact that he’s doing bad things that could have terrible consequences. If you actually stop and think about Bond’s lifestyle you don’t get the cheesy glamour of Roger Moore, or even the grim sexiness of Daniel Craig – you get the sleazy destructiveness of Archer.

I didn’t really expect the Finishing School books to delve far into the consequences of a career in theft and character assassination, or of the restrictive society in which Sophronia lives. Yet this book is strong on consequences. It lets them creep up on you through the first two thirds, then burst out as the central theme of the final section. I don’t want to give any more away, but I thought that Carriger did a great job of making the world feel more real through exploring this theme, without forever losing the whimsical joy that makes the setting so appealing.

Growing up with your books

It’s become a common feature of YA series for events to grow darker as the character and the readers grow up. Harry Potter’s famous for it, but it’s a theme that stretches back at least as far as C S Lewis’s Narnia stories, where the children grew too old to return to a magical world.

It’s a pattern that’s good for writers, as they keep the attention of their growing readers. But it’s also a good thing for readers, showing them that life changes, that people change, and that’s not a bad thing, just as they themselves are facing enormous change. It can be supportive and guiding. It shows the power of books.

Gail Carriger is doing that here, and it makes these books all the more admirable. The fact that she does it through a plot that feels more immediate and compelling than the previous book only adds to the pleasure.

More please!

So yes, I enjoyed this book too, more even than its predecessor. It’s fun and whimsical, but with just enough of a serious side to show growth in the series, its plots and its characters. I look forward to reading more of Carriger’s splendid books.

Gail Carriger’s Etiquette & Espionage

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.

Lessons learned

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?

The perfect name

A great character name is evocative. It tells you something about the person you’re encountering in the book. It implies things about their character before another word has even hit the page.

I’m reading Gail Carriger’s charming Etiquette & Espionage, and it made me think of this. It’s littered with names like Sophronia, Petunia and Dimity, names that evoke it’s upper crust Victorian social setting as well as specific characters. There’s a Mrs Barnaclegoose in the first scene, a name both amusing and evocative.

But my favourite is Bumbersnoot, the name of Sophronia’s mechanimal pet. It’s a name that evokes a gentle, friendly character, that helps me picture the mechanimal’s behaviour even when it’s not described, and that’s just fun to say.

Go on, say it out loud. Don’t worry about the looks you get, it’ll be worth it.


Wasn’t that good?

The king of this sort of naming is Charles Dickens. I haven’t read a lot of his work, but it’s littered with evocative and curious names. Just think of his most famous character, Ebenezer Scrooge. It’s a hard, angular name for a hard, angular man. It sounds nasty. It’s so brilliant that his surname has become a by-word for meanness and spite.

George R R Martin’s good at this too. It’s difficult when you’ve got a cast is huge as his, and a world that’s darker and more grounded than Carriger’s Finishing School. But just think of Ned Stark.

Ned’s a good, reliable name. It’s a no nonsense name. It’s a name that’s straightforward, that gets stuff done without allowing complications to unfold. That name evoke’s all that’s noble about the character, and all that becomes his downfall.

And Stark, a name that literally describes the lands he comes from and the way that shapes his character. A cold, hard landscape that breeds hard men and women.

So, the usual question – what are your favourite? What great names from fiction have I missed? Who does this best?