Without a Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal
Without a Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor, 2013) The Glamourist Histories 3 has produced a real internal debate and, even as I sit down to write this review, I’m still undecided on what my final decision should be. It all revolves around the merits of pastiche as a literary form. It has long been acceptable for one author to write in the style of another, usually to celebrate the skills and style of that other. I suppose in some senses, it’s a form of homage, albeit without the servile overtones that tend to be associated with the word. And we should distinguish parody because there’s no intention to make fun of the source material or its author. No matter how we end up defining pastiche, humour is not the intention (unless, of course, the author being celebrated is a humourist). So here we go with Mary Robinette Kowal writing in the style of Jane Austen, i.e. we’re to take it that this is how Jane Austen herself or other Regency writers might have written science fiction or fantasy. Ostensibly set in 1816, it deals with the literal fallout of the volcanic eruption of Tambora in the East Indies. It’s one of the few times we’ve come close to a nuclear winter as ash in the upper atmosphere produced a prolonged period of cold. So Ms Kowal’s intention is to take an actual historical event and to weave a story around it in a style of the period.
My problem with all this artifice is to decide how we should assess its merit and then whether the result works on those terms. As a reviewer, I could decide to accept the author’s intention as being to write a “Regency” novel. This would involve my applying criteria that Regency critics might have adopted. Or I could ignore its declared purpose of recreating a period work and judge it purely as a contemporary novel. So let’s be blunt about the first option. No Regency author would have written a book exactly like this. The core conceit is a system of magic that no author of that time could have imagined. Our two lead characters are capable of manipulating the aether for a number of different purposes and effects. Spread over now three books, the author has invested considerable effort in constructing an internally consistent set of rules for the exercise of this supernatural skill. Indeed, for the purposes of this book, we have an extension of the skill set to encompass coldmongering which is an elegant idea. So it’s pointless to try judging it as if it had been written two hundred years ago. Equally, we’re not in the business of trying to judge it in the same way as the efforts to complete Sanditon, i.e. the author takes the original incomplete work and attempts to continue the story in the same style. This is very much an original work albeit that it plays the game of social manners appropriate to the Regency era. Hence, if I’m not judging it to determine whether it succeeds as if written two hundred years ago, the primary question to answer is what value is added to the story by pretending it was written by Jane Austen.
So here I get into trying to second guess the marketing strategy. I’m assuming there’s a massive market for the real Jane Austen’s work. You only have to look at the outflowing of adaptations on the small and large screen to see our age is still fixated with this author’s view of the world. This would suggest that an author could trade on this love of the original author to sell her own fiction. What we have is a heady romance as Jane’s sister Melody comes to London and finds what may be love in an unfortunate quarter. We have all the problems of chaperoning and the etiquette of courtship set out for us at some length — a feature which rather pushes the glamour element to a backseat.
I’m therefore driven to a view which is no doubt strongly influenced by my male gender. I found Without a Summer to be as dull as ditchwater. I’ve tried to find added value in the pastiche but, frankly, I now conclude this has been a red herring. At best, this is a third-rate fantasy novel. There’s little development to the central conceit. The primary focus is romance threatened by political manoeuvring. From this point of view, the second novel was far stronger with genuine innovativeness on display. Sadly, this has dropped back to a very poor standard.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.