Curtsies and Conspiracies is the second book in Gail Carriger’s young adult series about Sophronia Temminnick, a young Victorian woman who attends Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy (a finishing school where young women learn the art of espionage). The finishing school also happens to be airborne, taking the form of a floating dirigible that hovers over the moors. And the setting is Victorian steampunk, an England with a large paranormal presence. Vampires and werewolves are a natural part of high society, and two paranormal beings also teach at the finishing school: the werewolf Captain Niall and the vampire Professor Braithwope.
The book begins with Sophronia’s six-month review at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s. She engages in a series of tests that involve her identifying poisoned cakes at tea service; sending a message by code; and choosing the “correct” two items out of “a letter opener, a pair of ornate lady’s sewing scissors, a large fan, a crumpet, two handkerchiefs, and some white kid gloves.” When her examiner asks her why she did not choose the crumpet, Sophronia responds, “Oh, no, I’m not worthy.” Carriger immerses readers in a truly different world, one whose Victorian customs and culture are identifiable through social norms, etiquette, romance, and dress, but altered by a paranormal and steampunk influence.
When Sophronia receives the highest marks on the exam, she is ostracized and alienated by the rest of the girls in her class, and must embark on her studies and her espionage alone and without help from best friend Dimity. Her studies on the dirigible are complicated by the fact that the school has taken on a small group of boys from Bunson and Lacroix’s Boys’ Polytechnique, a school for budding evil geniuses (which Dimity’s younger brother attends). This includes the high-ranking Felix Mersey, Lord Dingleproops, and Dimity’s brother Pillover. Meanwhile, Sophronia continues her nightly visits to the boiler room to meet with her friends Soap and Vieve. Sophronia finds herself in the middle of a mystery, as the flying school travels to London to witness a dirigible experiment that could change the dynamics between paranormal and non-paranormal beings.
I love Carriger’s books. After I read Etiquette and Espionage, the first book in Carriger’s young adult series, I quickly found her five-book adult series (and adapted manga series) The Parasol Protectorate. This adult series is set in the same world, but revolves around older characters including the protagonist Alexia Tarabotti. Characters from both series crossover, and the rules that govern this Victorian steampunk world are consistent in each.