Home > Books > Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal

Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal

This review contains a discussion of a major plot element and you should not read beyond the second warning given below if you prefer to read the book without preconceptions.

 

There are times when I place an order for the book and I am having the second thoughts (sorry, much of the action in this book takes place in Belgium so I’m practising the accent). I am looking back at the book that inspire this deduction from my compte bancaire. Was it really so good? Is there enough in it to justify this dépenses supplémentaires? Well, I allowed la douloureuse (slightly slangy French for “the bill” and the final gesture at incorporating foreign language into my English text) to go through. With Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor, 2012) now read, I’m able to report it as a major improvement over Shades of Milk and Honey. This is not to say it’s without problems. But it’s at least beginning to show a new author with more real promise.

 

For this to make sense, I need to explain the nature of the problem. Mary Robinette Kowal is playing the dangerous game of writing as if she’s Jane Austen. Indeed, in her afterword, she explains how carefully she has modified her vocabulary choices to reduce the risk of linguistic anachronism. She hopes all us pedants out in the real world will mail her with lists of noncanonical usages. While I applaud her enthusiasm, I fear this may be taking the drive for accuracy a little too far. Modern writing should be about developing styles most compatible with current sensibilities and not optimising storytelling techniques within a historical linguistic straightjacket. I would be interested in seeing how well Ms Kowal writes when she’s not trying to be Jane Austen. Yes, I know there’s a collection. I’ve ordered it.

 

So why is Glamour in Glass better than Shades of Milk and Honey? The latter plays the Jane Austen game too well and although there’s a developed system of magic on display (pun intended), the main action (or lack of it) is constrained by the literary conventions of Regency England with much debate in drawing rooms and plot development reproducing events adjacent to books of the time. Glamour in Glass, on the other hand, breaks through the narrative constraints by main force. It has Jane and Vincent, our newly-weds, sailing off on holiday to Belgium in 1815 just as Napoleon decides to do a runner from Elba. So, at two levels, our heroine has to change her view of the world. As a woman, she’s been subject to the usual range of humiliations doled out by the British patriarchs. So what she finds in Belgian society is something of an eye-opener. Obviously, coming as an outsider, she’s always going to be treated differently, but it’s the sexual repression that comes under pressure. She’s used to being a shrinking violet whereas, in this more egalitarian environment, she’s expected to sit around the table after the meal to share a cigar and port with the men. It’s positively revolutionary, my dear. However, there’s a more dangerous side to the expedition with Bonapartists threatening innocent travellers as they cross through the countryside. Fortunately, expert glamourists can always disappear from sight if the need arises.

Mary Robinette Kowal offering typewriter repairs at cut rate

 

This leaves us in radically new territory with emancipation issues explored against a society in turmoil as another Napoleonic war looms. In this, it’s interesting to watch the “husband” develop from a man of his time into a more equal partner. There’s some irony in Vincent’s history. In this alternate version of Regency England, the art of glamour is culturally labelled as primarily suitable for women. When Vincent begins to practise, his father fears his son might be gay and tries to beat the interest out of him. Having become a professional, he now has to defend his wife against the prejudice she can’t be as good as a man because she’s a woman. There’s also a nice issue for Jane. He may call her his muse, but did he marry her only for her ideas about glamour? If so, what will happen to the relationship if she has to stop using the power because she’s pregnant? However, the plot is not without problems.

 

Spoilers follow so do not read beyond this point unless you are prepared to forego the surprise element when reading.

 

I confess this is going to take me into slightly unfamiliar territory and that I have not gone back through the book to check the detailed passage of time. According to history, Napoleon leaves Elba on the 26th February, 1815 and, according to the chronology of this book, suffers his defeat by Wellington on the 17th June (the actual loss at Waterloo came one day later). That’s about four months. For a doctor to be able to diagnose a pregnancy without the convenience of an ultrasound machine or the aid of chemical testing, he would be looking for physical symptoms which are most likely to be noticeable towards the end of the first, and the beginning of the second, trimester. One of the more obvious physical signs would be an increase in the size of the breasts and a darkening of the areola.

 

For these purposes, let’s say our heroine is diagnosed in or about the 12th week. This is going to put us at least six months into the term coming into June and, to my male mind, the chances of a woman coming into the third trimester being able to cross-dress convincingly as a man is zero. Although casual observers are often the victims of cultural expectations based on the clothes they see, there will have been significant expansion in both the abdominal regions and the breasts. Hence, it’s not just her shape in trousers. There are also the changes in the ability to balance and co-ordinate simple physical activities like walking. Even with her breasts bound, assuming this was comfortable given the usual tenderness at this stage in the pregnancy, the bulging would still be obvious through a shirt. Because the people who see her first are suspicious soldiers investigating an intruder at a sensitive military location, there’s no way she could pass scrutiny.

 

Now we come to the final problem. If my arithmetic is correct, this is not a miscarriage situation. It’s a case of premature birth. Given modern technology, 50% of babies born at 24 months survive. In 1815, the chance of survival would have been slight but, the closer she is to term, the more likely it is that the foetus would be viable. Even more importantly, she would go into labour. Dilation is not something women can ignore, so the idea our heroine could just sit around and not notice the start of the process is completely incredible. I understand this is not something Jane Austen would have wanted to discuss in any detail, but modern authors are supposed to deal with such issues in a reasonably realistic way.

 

Despite this, Glamour in Glass is a significantly better effort at developing themes outside the ambit of Austen expectations and shows an author who’s prepared to take some risks to push the story outside the Regency mould. That said, I think there’s still a little too much time spent on the social side of life with a lot of talking for its own sake. At the other end of the scale, work on the glamour in the glass itself and then thinking about glass-blowing technology seems slightly overdone. This leaves me with an order placed for Without a Summer which is to be set in 1816. Should we get that far, I understand the fourth book is to be titled Valour and Vanity and will be set in 1817.

 

The jacket artwork features the photographic skills of Larry Rostant and is particularly appropriate.

 

For reviews of the other novels in this series by Mary Robinette Kowal, see
Shades of Milk and Honey
Valour and Vanity
Without a Summer.

 

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2012 Nebula Award and the 2013 Locus Award.

 

  1. beckony
    June 17, 2012 at 5:06 pm

    I too have been debating about this book. I bought the first one and found the plot way too annoyingly similar to Pride & Prejudice. I’m glad to hear that the next one gets better. Maybe with the shift in focus I’ll have to pick it up.

    • June 17, 2012 at 5:21 pm

      I find myself torn because there’s a certain dissonance when reading a “modern” fantasy novel in the style of Jane Austen. The adoption of Regency conventions does not seem to add anything to the quality of the novel. Indeed, if anything it slows down the development of plot with a lot of idle conversation and general socialising. If the Austen conventions were being used to make a contemporary point, i.e. as satire to illustrate how little the role of women has changed over the last two centuries, we could admire the scholarly work in service of a feminist cause. As it stands, I’m not convinced this is a constructive way of presenting a fantasy story. However, this is better than the first so. . .

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