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.
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.