Book Review Roundup: Mary Robinette Kowal's "Glamourist Histories"
This past spring, I quite enjoyed Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Jane Austen with magic” fantasy novel Shades of Milk and Honey (review here), and was happy to see it was the first in an increasingly ambitious series! Here are my reviews of the other four “Glamourist Histories,” tracing the glamorous and not-so-glamorous adventures of Jane and Vincent after they are married.
Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
In Glamour in Glass, Mary Robinette Kowal steps beyond the Jane Austen-influenced, courtship-and-marriage plot of Shades of Milk and Honey to address some of the wider historical events of Austen’s era. It is early 1815, and Kowal contrives to have Jane and Vincent honeymoon in a small town in the newly created Kingdom of the Netherlands. Visiting a colleague of Vincent’s, they merely want to enjoy their visit to the Continent and advance their craft as glamourists. But history intervenes: when Napoleon escapes Elba and marches toward Brussels, Vincent and Jane are directly in his path…
I admire Kowal for attempting a broader scope with this novel, but I don’t think it was entirely successful. Glamour in Glass takes a while to get going, and spends a lot of time introducing new characters, political context, information about the mechanics of glamour magic, etc. Also, I personally think it's more interesting and less conventional when a fantasy novel discusses magic as a means for artistic self-expression (as the first book did) rather than as a military and strategic asset (as this book does).
Furthermore, without getting too deep into spoilers, I didn’t really buy Jane’s daring plan at the end of the book. Was this really the same woman who was so insecure and self-effacing in Milk and Honey? Who struggles with doubts about her worth, and hesitates to confront her husband about his mysterious and moody behavior, in the first half of this book? Yes, we are meant to believe that Jane’s deep love for Vincent gives her courage and strength. But even so, would she really be that bold in a situation of great danger?
One weird thing: the book is set in Binche, a real town in Belgium, but the hardcover edition consistently prints the town’s name as “Binché”. (The two words would be pronounced very differently in French; think “bansh” vs. “ban-SHAY.”) Kowal has extensive notes in the back about how she tried to avoid anachronisms and had French friends verify the details about French language and culture, so it bugged me that this slipped through. Then again, the wonderful Francophone in-joke of a minor character named “Etienne Segal” almost made up for it.
Without a Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In the third book in Mary Robinette Kowal’s historical-fantasy “Glamourist” series, Vincent and Jane are in London for the Season (and a very cold, rainy Season it is) to work on a glamural commission. Jane’s sister Melody has accompanied them in the hopes of improving her marriage prospects. But the unseasonable weather is provoking civil unrest, and our intrepid glamourist couple gets caught up in the middle of it. It’s like a cross between the Regency marriage plots of Jane Austen and the socially conscious melodrama of later 19th-century writers like Elizabeth Gaskell or Victor Hugo.
In the best melodrama tradition, this book has a real, hissable villain for the first time in this series: Vincent’s manipulative and abusive father, Lord Verbury. I liked the way that Kowal shows Jane (who comes from a loving family and has a wonderful relationship with her father) struggling to understand the level of dysfunction that Vincent grew up with. And I also liked how Kowal humanizes the social and political themes by grounding them in family relationships. It made the climax of the book genuinely moving.
Kowal admits to being inspired by Emma in her decision to have Jane do some unsympathetic things in this book, too blinded by her own prejudices to see the truth. Fortunately, Melody proves a delight as the secondary heroine – she is more mature and thoughtful than in Shades of Milk and Honey , but still with a bubbly, winning personality. I loved the scene in the oculist’s shop: it’s the turning point of the book, a metaphor for how much Jane has failed to see clearly, and a nice inversion of the stupid old tropes about men not making passes at girls who wear glasses. More books where the pretty, charming heroine wears spectacles, please!
Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
At first, Valour and Vanity feels like it’s going to be an unabashed romp. The jacket copy promises a heist plotline. The story takes place in glorious Venice, land of glassblowers and pirates and con men. There are nerdy in-jokes like a character saying “One does not simply walk into Murano” and a Dr. Who cameo. Lord Byron even shows up swimming in the nude.
That’s why it was kind of disappointing when the book took over 200 pages to get to the heist part. I suppose it makes sense that nice, law-abiding people like Jane and Vincent would take quite a while to reach the point where they decide “screw it, let’s steal our money back,” but it threw the pacing off. Jane and Vincent also finally start to acknowledge a tragic event in their past, and I can be grateful that they’re handling their problems like mature adults while also feeling like these emotional beats detracted from the romp I wanted.
I really enjoy the author’s notes that Mary Robinette Kowal puts at the end of each Glamourist book. In the Valour and Vanity note, she acknowledges the difficulty of writing a heist novel in a series that is told in close third-person limited from Jane’s point of view. That is, Jane knows certain things about the caper that Kowal doesn’t want the reader to know, so the narration in the heist scenes has to focus on the action and omit Jane’s thoughts and feelings. It’s not dishonest, precisely, but it is another thing that contributes to the weird pacing (slow, psychological first half and fast, action-oriented conclusion). I also wonder if it was really necessary to conceal the underlying heist plan from the reader. The Talented Mr. Ripley (to name another novel about crime and deception in Italy) doesn’t conceal any of Ripley’s thoughts or actions, and yet is extraordinarily suspenseful. Mightn’t we be even more interested in the success of Jane’s plans if we knew what her plans were?
Of Noble Family by Mary Robinette Kowal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I don’t usually associate Gothic fiction with tropical settings, but Of Noble Family is a fantastic example of that subgenre known as Caribbean Gothic. (See also: Wide Sargasso Sea .) Jane and Vincent are summoned to his family’s sugar plantation on Antigua, where they encounter spying servants, creepy doctors, a decaying old estate where all their efforts to flee are thwarted, and many, many secrets. The book is obsessed with questions of lineage, legitimacy, and the sufferings of the female body. (Jane, who is pregnant, becomes a reluctant damsel in distress.) If that’s not Gothic, I don’t know what is.
With a frankness that would never be found in an actual 19th-century gothic novel, this book discusses the pervasiveness of sexual abuse and coercion on slave plantations. Vincent is shocked to learn that he has half-siblings, nieces, and nephews who are enslaved, and these members of his extended “noble family” become key characters in the book.
It really is amazing how much Jane’s life and worldview has expanded beyond the narrow landed-gentry confines of the first book in the series. I also appreciate how Kowal has traced the character development of her hero and heroine. After four years of adventures with Vincent, Jane is much more confident and steady. And while the series didn’t give much justification for Vincent’s withdrawn and brooding personality at first (it felt like he brooded just because that’s what Regency-romance heroes are supposed to do), Kowal has filled in his backstory so that his personality makes sense. He’s a sensitive man from a seriously dysfunctional family, and he’s built up layers of defense mechanisms over his trauma.
This was a very satisfying conclusion to the series, and it gets that elusive fifth star because a twist toward the end of the book literally made me gasp (highlight to reveal spoiler): Jane hemorrhages in childbirth, and suddenly the narration switches from Jane’s POV to Vincent’s POV (the first and only time in the entire series where we are not in Jane’s head). Way to ratchet up the suspense and make me doubt whether your POV-character heroine will survive till the end of the book, Ms. Kowal!
Also, kudos to whoever was involved in the decision to put a Black woman on the cover of the book. I have heard that publishers sometimes avoid putting POC on covers for fear that those books won’t sell as well, and Tor could have easily put a white woman on the cover with the justification that the protagonist, Jane, is white. But considering how central POC are to the book’s plot and themes, and how rare it still is to see Regency novels that take POC into account, I am glad that Tor decided to highlight that on the cover.
Bonus: Though I didn’t ultimately enjoy Valour and Vanity as much as I’d hoped to (and what’s with that title? Valour is certainly a theme in that book, but vanity, not so much), I was thrilled that the opening scene takes place at the ruins of the Roman amphitheater in Trieste. I seem to have a hobby of stumbling upon Roman amphitheaters when I travel in Europe, and Trieste is a really beautiful and fascinating port city that not enough Americans know about. It’s great when novelists highlight off-the-beaten-path locations; even better when they’re locations you’ve been to!
Bonus II: One overarching aspect of Kowal’s worldbuilding/magic system that I really loved is the idea that anyone can do glamour. It’s an art/skill/hobby like playing the piano, or sketching a landscape, or knitting a sweater—sure, some people are better at it or more interested in it than others, but most people can be taught to do at least a basic version of it, and if you work hard you can eventually create something really beautiful. In other words, it’s the rare fantasy series where you don’t have to be Special or Chosen in order to do magic. I sometimes think that this trope is more harmful than it is gratifying—because if talent is innate, if you are either a wizard or a Muggle, why work hard at anything? Kowal’s magic system had additional resonance for me because I was reading this series while completing a coding bootcamp. And I feel that women and minorities are often dissuaded from being software engineers out of a misguided belief that engineers are born, not made—that unless you are a nerdy white boy who started tinkering with computers at the age of 10, you’ll never be smart enough to hack it. (Pun intended.) But coding isn’t a mystical blessing—it’s just a skill that can be learned. And if magic existed, I’d like to believe that it, too, would be “just” a skill, and that plenty of women and minorities would create beautiful things with it (as they do in Kowal’s books). Then again, isn’t any sufficiently advanced technology indistinguishable from magic?