It can be a scary thing when an author switches to a new target audience. Be it a new genre or making the jump from YA to “adult” literature, (looking at you, RL Stein,) too often the switch doesn’t pay off. So with a steamy romance at the center of her last series, I was a bit trepidatious to hear Carriger was continuing her Parasol Protectorate universe in a new set of YA novels.
I think Alexia would be rather pleased with Sophronia. She’s undeniably younger and less sedate, and I can’t imagine Alexia would approve of the trifle incident, but she feels like she fits into the established world. If anything, Sophronia sometimes feels too mature for YA.
Sophronia is the youngest daughter of the Temminnick clan and a bit of a terror. After a spying attempt gone wrong, ending in the aforementioned trifle incident, her mother decides she needs some polishing. Just her luck, the headmistress of Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality just happens to be at the house looking into Sophronia, despite the school's very selective reputation. After the headmistress throws a pillow at her, she’s accepted and they away immediately.
From there we meet the best friend, the antagonist, and the mystery in rapid succession, along with the realization that finishing school may not be what it seems. Dimity is from a family of ne'er-do-wells and, along with her brother Pillover, is embarking off to follow in the family footsteps. The only problem is the kids are so darn...good! It’s certainly doing their poor mother in. She and Sophronia hit it off quite well, pretty neatly recreating Alexia and Ivy’s friendship with Sophronia as the brash, adventurous one and Dimity as the ditzy, sweet one. No word on how Dimity feels on hats.
I also really enjoyed Pillover as the mad scientist who doesn’t even like hurting ants. He’s lodged at Bunson and Lacroix’s Boys’ Polytechnique and thus absent for most of the book, but his few appearances are funny and I’m interested in how he’ll turn out. A young Lady Sidheag Maccon, the love interest Soap, (a sootie who works in the boiler room keeping the school running,) and a trouble making 9-year-old round out our heros. All got a good amount of page time, diverse motivations, and overall were likeable. A bit of complaint in a small spoiler: I applaud Ms. Carriger for starting an inter-racial relationship in 19th-century London, but the multiple comments about Soap’s skin tone, including the term “colored” combined with his menial job rubbed me the wrong way. To reveal he can’t read? It came off too stereotypical for a fantasy of werewolves and vampires. I did really appreciate that Sophronia didn’t want to “save” him, as Dimity did. That turned the relationship around for me.
As for the antagonist, Monique de Pelouse is at the center of the book’s mystery and is your typical snotty high society type. She has a few snide followers, but for the most part it’s all her against the good guys. Because of the botching of Sophronia’s arrival at the school she’s demoted back to freshman, despite being over 18. This lets her lord her superior knowledge over the younger girls, though I found her characterization somewhat spotty. Nothing overt enough to pull passages, just often a general feeling that she was at the same level as the others when she should have been far advanced. Monique knows the location of an item that the faculty would greatly like, and that location is the driving plot for this first book.
Which leads us to my least favorite thing: there’s very little resolution in Etiquette & Espionage. Over the course of the book, we’re introduced to the idea of flywaymen, highwaymen of the skies, who are also looking for Monique’s item. There’s something called a Pickleman, which is very bad, and he ALSO wants this item and is working with the flywaymen. Additionally, it seems that one of the professors may not be on the up and up! Yet, at the end, very little of this is resolved or explained. If anything, the final confrontation with Monique raises more questions, as it adds another player to the mess. I know the first book in a series has to leave some questions unanswered, but I was left wholly unsatisfied by the last chapters.
Etiquette & Espionage is a very good book and a worthy continuation of the Parasol Protectorate. Several characters cross over and help flesh out the world, but it’s still a self-contained story. You don’t need to know the Kingair history or remember who Niall is to enjoy E & E, though it is certainly fun to see a wee little lass grow into the the Sidheag we meet in Changeless. I’m very fond of Sophronia and look forward to seeing her grow, along with Dimity and the boys. If only the ending had been less soft, this would have been a home run for me.