The year is 1851 and women are expected to be perfect hostesses, focus on fashion, complete with full petticoats, and always behave as a proper lady. Fourteen year old Sophronia is much more interested in climbing trees and figuring out how machines work than behaving as she is supposed to. It has gotten to the point that her mother wants to send her away to finishing school.
But this is not your average finishing school and not your average Victorian setting. This is Etiquette and Espionage, by Gail Carriger, where the school not only teaches them how to be ladies, but how to be a spy. It is also 1851 as envisioned by Steampunk – a genre of science fiction that has a historical setting and typically features steam-powered machinery rather than advanced technology. So in addition to horse drawn carriages, there are also dirigibles, mechanical servants, and even mechanimals.
I had never heard of this book, but it is on the 2018-19 Middle Grade Battle of the Books list. If I had time, I would probably go on to read book 2 and 3 of the series, as I get a kick out of Steampunk, but at the moment, I lack that time.
Sophronia is a fun main character, even though she does seem pretty dense at the start of the book. She is going to a school for would be assassins and spies, but is the only one who doesn’t know what she is getting in to. The notion is that she is a “covert” recruit, or one who doesn’t come from a family seeped in espionage. But she is very smart and knows how to bring people and plans together. The secondary characters are all over the place, but it somehow worked for me.
The plot itself not only focuses on Sophronia’s education, but a prototype for a new type of communication that goes missing. The prototype had been collected by the person who brought Sophronia to school, but is not with her when she gets there. Everyone is after the prototype and Sophronia is working to figure out just where it is.
This book was a fun vacation read that takes you away from reality as we know it. For anyone looking for a series that is truly different, Etiquette and Espionage would definitely fit the bill.