The Finishing School on the Airship, Where They Teach Young Ladies to Kill

Gail Carriger has won a huge following for her Parasol Protectorate novels — and now she's venturing into young adult fiction, with the highly amusing Finishing School series. Check out an exclusive excerpt from the first book, Etiquette & Espionage, in which young Sophronia learns that her finishing school is teaching her to finish people off.

Here's the official synopsis of Etiquette & Espionage:

Sophronia Temminnick is more interested in dismantling clocks and climbing trees than proper manners and is sent to attend Mademoiselle Geraldine'ʹs Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality by her mother, in the hope that she become a proper lady. But Sophronia soon realizes the school is not quite what her mother might have hoped: The school, for one, is housed in a massive airship that looks like three dirigibles crammed together; Her teachers do not always remain in human form; Finally, although students at the lady'ʹs seminary learn the finer arts of dance, dress, and etiquette, they also learn another kind of finishing: death, diversion, deceit and modern weaponries.

With a new friend, Dimity, and a steam-­‐‑powered dog, Bumbersnoot, by her side, Sophronia must navigate both the decorous and deadly arts needed to become a demure female assassin. What a rousing first year'ʹs education this is going to be! Set in the same world as the Parasol Protectorate, ETIQUETTE & ESPIONAGE is filled with all the saucy adventure and droll humor her legions of fans have come to adore.

And here's our exclusive excerpt:

The schedule proceeded much of a pace after the chaos of that first day. Sophronia came to accept the un‑finishing-​school aspects of Mademoiselle Geraldine's. The lessons were mostly un‑lesson-​like, the teachers were mainly un‑teacher-​like, and the routine was more that of a London dandy than that of any proper educational system.

The Finishing School on the Airship, Where They Teach Young Ladies to Kill

The girls commenced their mornings — which were really early afternoons — with a light repast, nothing too heavy, on the insistence of Mademoiselle Geraldine. " Breakfast," she said, bosom heaving, " should never be luxurious." Thus all they had to select from was tea, bread and sweet butter, porridge, ham and broiled mushrooms, rabbit pie, fricandeau of eggs, mayonnaise of prawns, and spiced beef. " Now, ladies," said the headmistress every day from the front table. " I know this is quite the meager selection, but breakfast comestibles should be undisruptive, nutritive, and effortlessly digested. You must watch your figures. Watch them!"

Sophronia, uncertain how she might do such a thing, ate bites between staring down at her own chest, and selected only what she might have eaten back at home — a little porridge with molasses. They all ate meals together, although separated into tables by age or inclination. The dining hall was stretched to capacity with four dozen or so students, plus assorted teachers. The ship's complement and personal staff ate beforehand, of course, and the sooties and other menial laborers ate belowdecks.

After breakfast, all the girls stood to recite, with religious solemnity, the school motto — ut acerbus terminus — three times over.

"What does it mean?" Sophronia wanted to know.

" 'To the bitter end,' imbecile," said Monique de Pelouse.

After breakfast they were separated according to skill level and drifted off to their first set of lessons. Three days a week the debuts took mathematics and household management with Sister Mathilde, along with a number of older girls. They learned more in the manner of lists and organization than sums calculated on slates. There were no apparent exams, and yet Sophronia found herself intrigued into learning simply by the puzzles Sister Mathilde proposed. Algebra was far more interesting when it was a matter of proportioning out mutton chops so as to poison only half of one's dinner guests and then determining the relative value of purchasing a more expensive, yet more effective, antidote over a home remedy. Sophronia was a mite disturbed by the context, but could not help being intrigued by the macabre nature of the calculations.

On the other two days, they had physical culture with Lady Linette during the first time slot. This involved, much to Sophronia's shock, climbing, running, and even some light tumbling — in petticoats. There were also battledore and shuttlecock, tennis, croquet, pass the slipper, and wink-​wink. Sophronia had the advantage of brothers. Who would have thought I should ever consider them an advantage? Which turned her, as Monique pointed out disgustedly, into rather a sporting lady.

"Ugh, Sophronia, you're so very country," she said.

"Well, yes, I was raised there." At least I don't have horsey teeth, like you!

"Next you'll be crying out, 'Tallyho!' from the squeak deck."

"Oh, now, be fair. Only when I have the dogs out after you, dearest Monique." Sophronia grinned slyly, and Monique gave her a nasty look.

Lady Linette completed a somersault across the carpet, ending in front of them and causing Sophronia and Monique to snap their mouths closed and pay attention. She seemed almost embarrassed as she guided them through the steps. " Now, ladies, remember this is for use only when strictly necessary, and you must be absolutely certain not to muss your hair. For the most part, you should delegate physical exertions to a willing, or unwilling, accomplice. We will discuss bribery and blackmail techniques later. Alternatively, you might arrange things so that fleshy activity does not become necessary at all. However, a lady is always prepared. Speaking of which, show me your handkerchiefs!"

The girls all stopped what they were doing, which had been preparing — in various states of distress or, in Sophronia's case, delight — to try their own versions of the somersault, and began patting about for handkerchiefs.

"What did I tell you yesterday? A lady always has her handkerchief on her person. A handkerchief is endlessly useful. Not only is it a communication device, but it can also be dropped as a distraction, scented with various perfumes and noxious gases for discombobulation, used to wipe the forehead of a gentleman, or even bandage a wound, and, of course, you may dab at the eyes or nose if it is still clean. Dab, mind you! Never blow. I don't tell you these things for my own amusement, ladies. Now, books on heads while I do the inspection."

The girls produced handkerchiefs from various pockets and held them up, at the same time placing books atop their heads for balance and posture.

Lady Linette, blonde curls bobbing, marched among them examining the offerings closely.

"Very good, Monique. Perfect, as always. Next time, Sidheag, smaller handkerchief. A lady carries embroidered muslin, not — what on earth is that? A square of tweed? Really, girl! Dimity, watch your balance, and red? Dear, not red. You're not ready for red. Red is only for the advanced deployment of handkerchiefs. Preshea, why the discoloration? Have you been experimenting with poison again? Next time, don't use your good handkerchief. Agatha!"

Poor Agatha lost her balance while waiting, causing the books atop her head to tumble to the ground. She reeled into Sophronia. Both girls fell over backward.

Sophronia giggled.

Agatha looked both terrified and mortified.

Lady Linette tsked. " Ladies. Ladies!"

So the lessons continued, with Monique garnering the most praise, and even being excused from class early on occasion for her good behavior. It was all very vexing.

Once a week, the after-​breakfast lesson was deceit with Mademoiselle Geraldine, which the headmistress thought was a "getting‑to‑know-​you session" and which the girls knew was really training in the fine art of engaging in conversation without actually saying anything.

In the afternoon came tea and social discourse. After tea, they practiced various parlor games and played cards among themselves in the dining hall while the teachers either joined in or circulated, offering critique. Sophronia learned quickly that Sidheag was particularly adept at cards and that Agatha was no good at all. Preshea knew by heart all the different flavors of sherry and what ought to be stocked for gentlemen to imbibe, and Monique was a horrible whist partner.

Following this, they had the history of social discourse from one of any number of teachers, which seemed mainly to be comprised of reading in the library.

Then came dinner. This was followed by a seemingly endless round of dancing, drawing, music, dress, and the modern languages with Lady Linette, Sister Mathilde — whom everyone quickly began referring to as Sister Mattie — or, after the sun had set, Professor Braithwope. Incorporated into these lessons were the fine arts of death, diversion, and the modern weaponries.

Supper occurred promptly at ten each night. Then there was a small spate of spare time, which, due to the amount of extra work and rote memorization they were assigned throughout the day, Sophronia soon deduced was purely mythical. A few additional lessons, and the gas was turned off at two.

Sophronia came to realize that despite a near-​constant exhaustion in mind and body, she was very much enjoying herself. She loved the lessons in espionage and deceit — so many possibilities! — and remained only a smidge disturbed by the analytical approach to murder. This kind of finishing school was rather more engaging than the one she had imagined, although she couldn't quite determine why she was there. It occurred to her that perhaps all finishing schools were like this — after all, Preshea discussed poisonings as if they were commonplace — but she rejected that idea. She may not yet be fully educated in the finer arts of being a proper lady, but she was smart enough to realize that her sisters wouldn't put much stock in finishing schools were they all this subversive.

After two weeks of such lessons, Sophronia drummed up the courage to ask Lady Linette about the matter of her unusual education. She waited patiently until after their lesson with Sister Mattie on buttermilk — for use in whitening lace and coating the stomach — in order to catch the teacher alone. Lady Linette had just finished with a group of the senior students on some mysterious French letter-writing technique that had even the oldest of the girls red-faced and tittering as they left the room.

"Lady Linette, may I have a moment of your time?"

"Oh, Miss Temminnick. Certainly. How may I help you?"

"Would it be terribly forward of me to ask quite a direct question?"

"Well, it would certainly be against your training thus far. We haven't yet covered the manipulation of conversation by applying provocateur diplomacy. However, I suppose I might excuse an uncontrolled query this once."

Sophronia took a deep breath. " What, precisely, will I be expected to learn here?"

Lady Linette twirled one curl of blonde hair around the tip of one finger. " Information gathering and object retrieval, of course. But mostly, you should learn how to finish."

"Finish what, exactly?"

"Why, anything or anyone who needs finishing, my dear."

Sophronia shuffled her feet. When Lady Linette's forehead creased at the movement, Sophronia stilled and said, " Ah, yes, you see, it is not that I am unaware of the honor of your taking me in even though I haven't the connections of the other girls, but . . ."

"Go on."

"I'm not certain I could do it."

"Do what, dear?"

"Kill someone in cold blood."

Lady Linette's cornflower-​blue eyes crinkled. " Ah, yes, but how do you know until you try?"

"I suppose that's true."

"Besides, dear, you don't have to do it face‑to‑face; there is always poison. And many of our graduates never harm anyone. It will depend on your particular situation after you leave us. It always does. For the ones who marry have a different path from the ones who don't."

"If you don't mind my asking, Lady Linette, how did you know to recruit me?"

"Ah, now, my dear, that is part of your training. You will have reached quite a level of comprehension if you manage to determine that truth all on your own." Lady Linette looked away.

Sophronia wanted to say something about the prototype, but she knew when she was being dismissed. She bobbed a curtsy. " Thank you, my lady."

Lady Linette winced. " Miss Temminneck, arrange after-​hours lessons with Professor Braithwope, do. We really must work on that curtsy of yours, dear." "

"But I have advanced eyelash fluttering to practice, and a mathematics problem concerning how to order strychnine and a lamb dinner on a limited budget, and three chapters on court etiquette to read, and my handkerchief to starch, and the quadrille to memorize!"

"No one said learning etiquette and espionage would be easy, my dear."