Home > Books > Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal

Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal

Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal

This review sees the application of the old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” After the last book in the series, I confess I was in two minds as to whether to bother reading this latest addition to The Glamourist Histories. It seemed to me the series was drowning in its own conceit as books written in the Regency style without actually spending a great deal of time in constructing a strong narrative arc in its own right. However, having now consumed Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor, 2014), I find myself relieved to be able to report the right balance has been struck in this volume.


I confess initial despair as we set off on the Grand Tour with the wedding party of Jane’s sister and her new husband. Jane and Vincent are towed along in the wake of the family party until they can use the excuse of a visit to Lord Byron in nearby Venice to justify setting off on their own journey. In fact, they intend to continue their research with the glassmakers of Venice who have one of the best reputations in Europe. The idea is to see whether the better techniques of blowing used by the Venetians will allow more complete glamours to be woven into the glass. However, we then arrive at a stylistic collision leaving neither side of the fence well served. Somehow the prose style of Regency England is better suited to gentle conversations in drawing rooms rather than dealing with attacks by pirates during sea crossings. The difficult is simple to state. The arrival of corsairs firing shots across the bows of the ship they are on generates little or no excitement. The whole point of the more florid Victorian penny dreadfuls was to build on the gothic styles, and generate melodrama and the tension of mystery and adventure. This opening sequence falls flat.

Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette Kowal


However, something rather miraculous then happens. Finding themselves stranded penniless in Venice, our couple are first assisted by a banker and, later, by some Catholic nuns and a puppeteer. During this time, we find ourselves engaged in what, for want of a better term, I’ll describe as a heist plot. There’s also considerable rumination on the subject of sexual equality which, although couched in the language and mores of the Regency period, actually manages to speak to some of the still pervasive problems in our currently patriarchal society. Taking the heist first, this is great fun as our couple demonstrate how the glamour can be used both as a means of offence and defence. Suffice it to say, this is all particularly inventive. Some of the ideas are devilishly ingenious, e.g. if a glamour can exclude light from an area, what might await an exploring hand thrust into the concealed area? The plot also conforms to the need to have an element of surprise in the execution of the plan. This is difficult to manage because Jane, as our point of view character, should be aware of all the detail of the plan. Yet, for reasons I’ll avoid discussing, the book manages to justify not giving us the key elements until we are there first-hand, to see the metaphorical rabbit pulled out of the hat.


As to the question of gender roles and sexual equality, the couple are rather rudely pulled out of their cocoon of wealth and privilege. Left without resources, they pawn her wedding ring and take up residence in a drafty room. Consider them as candidates for The Admirable Crichton moment. This was a stage play by J M Barrie about a wealthy family who are shipwrecked and discover they have no survival skills. Fortunately, their butler might be able to help, but on his terms. So Jane is great on the piano and other drawing-room skills, but has never been required to learn how to prepare food or wash clothes. Similarly, he’s been a professional glamourist, able to command work from the circle of the wealthy into which he’s been born, and surrounded by servants to attend his every practical need. Having to go out on to the streets to knock on doors looking for work comes hard to him. What rubs salt in the wound is that Jane gets paid work through the convent, and so is able to buy food and pay the rent. This dependence on her earning ability upsets his sense of gender roles. Although the way in which this is resolved is viewed through the slightly rose-tinted spectacles of romantic love, there’s much truth as to the actual compromises required to keep the peace in their relationship. There’s also an affecting discussion of what it feels like to have lost a child, and whether it’s appropriate to make sacrifices to try for a second.


So after a rocky start, I find myself enjoying this book as probably the best of the series so far. Thinking about the plot mechanics in play, I suspect many might not quite understand precisely what proves to be at stake. The Glamourist Histories is very much a serial and the events here grow naturally out of what has gone before. This creates a dilemma because this may involve you looking at less satisfying books first. It’s up to you. If you have already come through the first three books, Valour and Vanity is the best of the bunch. If this is your first, you should consider reading Glamour in Glass first.


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


  1. June 11, 2014 at 2:19 pm

    I too very much enjoyed Valour and Vanity. You turned me on to this series with your review of Glamour in Glass, and despite the middle two not being as good as the first and last, it has been a fun series to read. One note only lightly touched on but which I enjoyed as a student of history, was the preserved lion; it fit nicely into the truth that in the Regency era there were still mysteries left from the Roman Empire, techniques that had been lost and were still not understood. A nice added touch.

    • June 11, 2014 at 2:30 pm

      As to the Roman lion, it highlights the more general lack of a history to the development of the glamour in all its functions. Although I’ve been fascinated by the different potential applications for this psychic skill, these are the type of developments governments would have been researching and guarding over the centuries. The ability to spy on people from a distance and hear what they say, for example, would have been just as valuable to the Romans as the mechanism for teaming two people to produce an enduring animated image. I’m not convinced we would have come into the Regency period without formalised military and espionage applications. This is not to deny Jane and Vincent would become the focus of interest to the intelligence services of many different countries for their current work. I’m just faintly disappointed we don’t have a proper context for their work.

      • June 11, 2014 at 9:42 pm

        The books do hint at both military and espionage applications, however; Book 2 talks about military glamourists, and Book 3 points to the use of “silence” glamours to make spying posts. Book 4’s use of glamour for security systems was also sophisticated. One of the things the books do make clear is how unusual Vincent’s abilities are (his stamina and his ability with more distant glamours which allowed his long-distance spying technique). The thing I think we have to keep in mind is that the books are tight first-person POV and Jane’s is the point of view. She is a civilian, so we the reader are only exposed to military, espionage, and other professional uses of glamour as she sees and comments on them. And yes, for a reader like me who enjoys detailed military-fantasy stories, this is a bit frustrating (I could not believe that in Book 2 the writer took Jane and Vincent to Waterloo and then did not show us the battle!).

      • June 11, 2014 at 10:13 pm

        Since Jane has been allowed into the magic circle of the Prince Regent’s circle, you would think there would have been some talk about military and espionage matters but, I suppose, because of the POV constraint you so rightly point out, it would be inappropriate for Kowal to have pre-empted her own plot developments in casual conversation. And, perforce, I agree with you that this is a dramatically more effective pair of glamourists than are active elsewhere (or, perhaps, in time). Except does this not make it all the more surprising they have not been formally approached by the British intelligence service to work for them? They get into all this trouble because they remain free agents without any support in the field. You would think by now the British would have realised how important this pair are to the security of the realm and have put some level of protection in place for them. I am, of course, assuming that Vincent is not hiding involvement from Jane. That would be too cruel.

      • June 11, 2014 at 11:05 pm

        Agreed, although one thing we always have to keep in mind is how much does British Intelligence (such as it was, then) know? The British military has the cloaking technique, which is a big step forward but they can’t hope to keep secret since every military glamourist trained in it is a potential leak. They do not have the glamour-glass and they don’t even know about it. Remember that the espionage plot of Vanity and Valor was hatched because the French got hold of Vincent’s notes in Book 2–at no point has Vincent informed his own government of his and Jane’s experiments.

        Oops. Total face-palm. If Vincent has an ounce of sense, that will be rectified before the next book–although the two of them did an excellent job of convincing the French that glamour-glass didn’t work, so bravo.

        Of course the “secret” of glamour-glass is about to get busted wide open since they have just commercialized the technology with the glass makers of Venice. With the technique of glamour-glass widely known, then all that will be needed is a military glamourist who know’s Vincent’s cloaking technique and a good glass maker.

        Which means that the Kilkenny cats are out of the bag and it’s only a matter of time before all of Europe’s armies have the cloaking technique… So the Vincents or someone else will just have to come up with better glamour-detection techniques. I can think of a few “mundane” techniques, one involving flour. Progress (and military progress) marches on.

      • June 11, 2014 at 11:20 pm

        As to the use of flour, I’m reminded of the problem with gas during WWI in which a change of the wind direction led to unintended consequences. If the military try to blow flour forward to expose enemy hidden areas, there could be blow-back to expose their own.

        Yes as to everything else with a reinforcement over the commercialisation of the glass technique. Since they have just convinced the French the technique does not work, it’s extraordinarily stupid of them to allow Venetian glassmakers the right to make money out of the same technology. Hopefully, the British will not lock them up as traitors for giving this sensitive secret away.

      • June 11, 2014 at 11:36 pm

        Maaaybe. 🙂 But remember they needed the help of a second glass maker at the end of the book.Talking about the Regency period, I don’t think they had the same attitude towards “national security” that we do today. Also, they may have concluded that too many knew about it now, anyway. I assume the Vincents would give the full cloaking technique to the government so that at least the British military weaponizes it first and figures out ways to deal with it.

      • June 12, 2014 at 1:56 am

        Although they are set slightly earlier than this series, one of my favorite sets of books when I was growing up was by Baroness Orczy and featured the Scarlet Pimpernel. Set for the most part during the French revolution and immediately after it, Sir Percy and his merry band of adventurers keep rescuing deserving people from France while Citizen Chauvelin and his agents try to stop them. At the time, it was considered one of the best early Edwardian espionage series as spies and undercover agents in both France and England seek information. I don’t know enough about the state of the British intelligence set-up during the period covered in Kowal’s books, but I speculate it must have been functioning to deal with the threat of Napoleon and his cohorts. Intuitively, I think it would have been slightly easier to break into buildings and/or bribe people to ferret out information in those days. Guards notoriously sleep while on duty and mission impossible teams could have been sent out to collect information on all major European threats. Since Vincent is a friend of the Prince Regent and knows people who work on military matters, you would expect him to be more circumspect after his unfortunate experience in Belgium. I tend to think Kowal is making him too naive in security matters.

      • June 12, 2014 at 2:22 am

        “They seek him here, they seek him there…” Loved those books, even though I only discovered the Scarlet Pimpernel’s sequels as an adult.

      • June 12, 2014 at 2:29 am

        Here’s a fairly faithful screen adaptation of the original novel. I suspect if I went back to read the books now, I would find them terrible. As a growing boy, they were gripping. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MeajGFRjhwI

      • June 12, 2014 at 4:59 am

        Have you seen the made-for-TV movie of the Scarlet Pimpernel, starring Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour? Lavish, stagy, and delightful (based more on the stage-play than the novel).

      • June 12, 2014 at 11:37 am

        No. That was the 1980s. The television version I saw in the 1950s starred Marius Goring, Lucie Mannheim and Patrick Troughton. That was fun because it had many of the stars of the day as guests.

      • June 12, 2014 at 11:48 am

        There is also a recent and excellent BBC series (very short), starring Richard Grant.

      • June 12, 2014 at 12:01 pm

        I knew there was a reason for my leaving Britain. No British television series on local terrestrial channels! That’s why I’ve become so interested in South Korean, Japanese, Hong Kong, and Mainland China series.

  1. June 11, 2014 at 2:37 am
  2. June 11, 2014 at 2:39 am
  3. June 11, 2014 at 2:40 am
  4. June 11, 2014 at 2:42 am

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