Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Book Review - Gail Carriger's Etiquette and Espionage

Etiquette and Espionage, Finishing School Book the First by Gail Carriger
Published by: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: February 5th, 2013
Format: Hardcover, 320 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Sophronia isn't exactly like other girls her age. Rather then sitting prettily in a chair and waiting to be wooed, she'd rather be climbing up a tree. Her mother therefore has decided she needs to go to finishing school... yet the finishing school that takes her isn't what it seems. While they will make a lady out of her, they aren't interested in quelling her unusual habits, but in cultivating them for a more open ended meaning of finishing. A school devoted to the arts of espionage will obviously have a few evil villains and traitors in the mix. Sophronia and her posse of friends soon stumble on a plot to leak information for an astonishing new invention to the evil Picklemen, who have already attacked the school once. It is up to them to stop this from happening, this is what they are being schooled in after all...

I wanted to like this book, I really really did. Thankfully, now that more reviews are coming out it seems to be just me, which I hoped was the case, because I love Gail's writing but I just didn't love this. While reading this book I did something I rarely ever do, and that's set the book aside for awhile. Usually when a book isn't working for me I try to push on through till I reach a point where either I grudgingly find something to like and my opinion is changed or I finish it and can mark it off my list and get it out of my life and onto the next book. But I love Gail so much I thought that everything I was hating about the book was just in my head. So I set it aside and read something else, which I really enjoyed. Feeling hopeful that my joy in books was undiminished, I picked up Etiquette and Espionage again and found that I still could barely stand reading it. The book was indeed a book I had to push through till the end and then I had a hard talking to with myself as to the rating I'd give it... let's put it this way, it was saved from the one star rating just because of Bumbersnoot. Who doesn't love a Steampunk version of K-9 without all the annoying "mistress" stuff?

Dumbing down. That is the flaw that got in my craw. There is nothing I hate more then feeling like an author is talking down to me, which is a fatal flaw of L. Frank Baum, or dumbing down their writing so that little old me can understand it. Oh gosh, I just can't handle the overly big words, it makes my brain hurt. I have noticed that several authors who have written for a predominately adult audience aren't quite able to make this shift into YA. For some reason they treat their audience differently and change their writing stylistically. The thing is, the YA market is a very discerning audience. Gail's previous books have much cross genre appeal and she could have easily just taken out the sexy bits of her previous books and that would have been enough. But instead we get a book that is predominately action which lacked a snap to the language, and it felt flat. The witty repartee seemed pushed aside for plot expedience, making the whole book lackluster. Etiquette and Espionage felt like a wonderful book that had been mercilessly bowdlerized to make it into a blockbuster that was dumbed down for the masses. Gone is the chatter over tea and scones, in is the heroine climbing the side of a dirigible... why? Because obviously that's the easiest way to get to the bowels of the ship? Excuse me what? Action action action to me is dull, please bring back the chats over tea.

Yet it wasn't just the writing that was dull, but the plot and characters. For a heroine, Sophronia was very one dimensional. She was good at physical activities such as climbing... yeah, that's it for Sophronia. Oh, except that she is so obtuse! I mean, it's understandable that at first she didn't get the joke and the true meaning behind a "finishing school" but that she continuously didn't get it just drove me insane. I just wanted anyone at all to pull her aside and go, "Ok, so, Sophronia, we know that in your world getting finished means getting all your accomplishments polished so that you can be married off, but look at the classes we teach here, finishing can also mean killing someone, ok, now stop being so dumb." Add additional characters even dumber than her as sidekicks and a very basic espionage plot, and the book just didn't appeal to me at all. Sorry.

Though there is one aspect of the book that bothered me beyond all the dumbing down and that is Soap. Soap himself doesn't bother me as such, in that he's just a stock minority character to round out Sophronia's team, it's his name. In another instance of Sophronia's stupidity, upon first meeting Soap she doesn't realize that he is black because he is covered in soot from coal. His name comes from the fact that no matter how much he washes, he'll still look like he's covered in soot. Excuse me? Um... this name offends me on so many levels. I don't care if it's irony or self parody on Soap's part, to me it's racist. While the name is countered by his portrayal and the fact that he is a love interest, the name is just so so wrong. Even before this time in England, there where quite wealthy and well respected blacks in the community, thank you Regency House Party. Slavery was first abolished in 1807 with any people slow to the party being taken out with the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, while this book is set in 1851. So, while I know racism even lingers to this day, there was so much upheaval and change and so much good being done before the setting of this book that by naming the character Soap, it just feels like two steps backwards.

So, wow, this is turned into a rather wordy review now didn't it? I guess I just really needed to justify those two stars which have been worrying rather a fair few of my friends who are also huge fans of Gail Carriger. In summation, I don't think this book will get Gail many new readers. There is just too much world building that is dependent on having read the previous books, written for a much older audience who will not appreciate the dumbing down of the writing. The only little joy I got from this book, aside from Bumbersnoot, was seeing characters from The Parasol Protectorate at a younger age... though not all cameos are successful. Yet there are ways this series could work. I liked the school and the fixed environment, just flesh it out more, set aside more chapters to fully explore this school. Show us classes. Make it Harry Potter on a damn dirigible not debutantes climbing dirigibles! And please, before anything else, give Soap a real name.


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