As I’ve made mention in the past, Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series quickly became one of my favorite titles, despite my initial scoffing. (I’m sorry! There were vampires involved, and it was during 2009. I had reasons and I apologize for them!) When the series ended last year, I was sad, even though I knew there was going to be a sequel. “Ah well,” I thought, “Perhaps the YA series will tide me over.” After all, I had heard it was going to be set in the same universe; perhaps there would be at least one cameo by the fabulous Lord Akeldama.I was not expecting this piece of glorious writing. If the Parasol Protectorate blew me away with its wit and charm and characters, Carriger ramps it up a few dozen notches with the utterly delightful Etiquette & Espionage. I was looking forward to just being back in this world Carriger had crafted, and she exceeded all of my expectations with flying colors.Given my recent reads, I should learn not to trust my expectations.Unlike its predecessor, Etiquette & Espionage is firmly a steampunk book, with a healthy dose of paranormal trappings for flavor. I love the aesthetic created in this book, from the various mechanicals and mechanimals (omg Bumbersnoot I want one so bad) to the grandiose titular finishing school which is constructed on three dirigibles. (I would love to get a manga adaptation of this series as well, just for the scene where Sophronia sees the school for the first time.) There are some absolutely gorgeous descriptions, and I was completely swept up into this world. Also, we get so many new details about this world and how atypical Victorian concepts are worked into it. (There are flywaymen with air dignhies. Other steampunk writers, get on this!)I also have to give Carriger massive points for making the Finishing School series different from Parasol Protectorate in the feel and its characters; not just going “Oh, well, it’s YA so less werewolf sexytimes.” A lesser writer could have gone with making Sophronia et al miniature ‘early’ versions of Alexia and company. And while there are some similarities—there is snarking all around, as to be expected from Carriger’s work—not one of the characters feel like taking the easy way out and being a copy of an already established character.Sophronia establishes herself as a prime espionage candidate in the very first scene. I love that Carriger shows how intuitive Sophronia is as she’s sneaking around in a dumb waiter and crafting boots with india rubber grip. And I love that she’s curious as how things work—she’s not at the level of Madame Lefoux, but I love her natural curiosity. The scenes of Sophronia sneaking around the decks and exploring the ship are just some of the best scenes in the whole book. I also loved that while Sophronia quite enjoys her boarding school, it’s up to her to figure out why she’s been recruited to attend. It’s never treated as if Sophronia feels particularly out of place at Madame Geraldine’s, but she wants to know why she’s been picked as a covert recruit. I love everything about her.I also love her relationship with one Phineas B. Crow aka Soap. Again, it would have been so easy to have Sophronia and Soap butt heads whenever they first meet, but I love that he acts like a true gentleman to Sophronia. I love that he’s fairly good-natured about everything and is up to just about anything. And again, points to Carriger for including a POC not only as a love interest, but it not being a big deal. (Honestly? I laughed when Sophronia notices that Soap’s black and she goes “Oh, you’re an African? I KNOW A LOT ABOUT AFRICA.” And Soap just laughs it off. It could have been played as really awkward but it doesn’t.) One of the big criticisms I hear about steampunk is that it’s yet another fetishizing of white privilege, so I like that Carriger does address this. And again, I like their chemistry together. If the end pairing isn’t Soap/ Sophronia, I will be disappoint.Dimity and Monique are probably the two weakest characters in the book so far. I do like them, but I felt that they could have been fleshed out more. As I mentioned above, it could be very easy to write Dimity off as prototype of Ivy Hisselpenny, with her mangling of names and the fainting at the sight of blood. But I do like how Dimity has her own ulterior motives for being at the finishing school and is putting her training to good use. Also, I love that she comes from a long line of evil geniuses. (With conspicuous octopi involved.) Monique is the standard bitchy mean girl, but I do like the cat-and-mouse game she plays with the staff of Madame Geraldine’s and with the flywaymen. She’s not fantastic, but I do like her manipulative nature.Now, there is a very important aspect to Etiquette & Espionage. I wouldn’t quite call this a prequel to Parasol Protectorate (given that there’s a whole other book in the works), but there are prequel elements. As I mentioned above, I was expecting at least one cameo—I’m still calling that Lord Akeldama or Alessandro Tarabotti will make an appearance—as a nice nod to the fans. I was not expecting that one of Sophronia’s classmates to be none other than Lady Kingair herself, SIDHEAG BLOODY MACCON. She is a wee precious darlin’ omg. I loved seeing her here and I loved that we get to see her development from the awkward fourteen year-old to the badass leader of the Kingair pack.And speaking of cameos, it should have tipped me off that when of Madame Geraldine’s professors is one Beatrice Lefoux, there would have been some family members hanging around. I squealed out loud when Sophronia ran into a young kid named Vieve. Ma cheri, she is a precious baby. She is so wide-eyed and tiny and curious about everything. (You can really see where Quesnel gets his own curiosity about mechanics. My heart.) I bring up Sidheag and Genevieve not just because they are two of the best characters in the first series, but it also brings up the thing I loved overall about E&E. Yes, there are a lot of nods and mentions to the Parasol Protectorate, but the references completely work within the story of E&E. You don’t need to read Soulless or Changeless to understand what’s going on in this book. The nods don’t really call attention to themselves, but it’s a fun thing to spot while reading. (Fun drinking game: count the cephalopods.) Not only that, but the end of this has enough wriggle room in the plot that a new reader can jump from E&E straight to Soulless without missing a lot of the plot. And even though I loved the nods to the original series, I completely loved Etiquette & Espionage for its own merits. (In fact, I’m now actually conflicted about what I’m going to rec at work first: starting with Soulless or this one.) I had the biggest grin on my face the whole time while reading it, and it’s so much fun. While the Parasol Protectorate established Gail Carriger as a great steampunk writer, E&E cements her place as a Grand Lady of Steampunk (and fantastically well-equipped ladies’ accessories).