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Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal

June 11, 2014 18 comments

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.

 

Without a Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal

June 27, 2013 2 comments

Without a Summer

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.

Mary Robinette Kowal with typewriter

Mary Robinette Kowal with typewriter

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.

For reviews of the other books in this series, see:
Glamour in Glass
Shades of Milk and Honey
Valour and Vanity.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal

June 17, 2012 2 comments

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.

 

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

December 22, 2010 1 comment

This takes us into the realm of the mashup. Frankly, this is not one of the better new words since the original meaning of the verb to “mash” is, with an appropriate degree of violence, to pulp, crush or otherwise destroy the texture of boiled vegetables, fruit, spices, etc. I grew up eating mashed potatoes and later enjoyed cider made from mashed and fermented apples. The idea is to take source material in one form and then convert it into something quite different by physical and/or chemical processes. Yet, as first applied to music and now writing, the technique is somewhat different. It is a blending of previously separate elements to produce a version in which the sources are recognisable, but transformed by being put together. In artistic terms, it is a type of collage.

Let’s take as an example Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith. The object of the exercise is to leave much of the original Austen text in place but add new elements from different genres. In theory, this is supposed to go beyond satire, parody or pastiche, producing an alternate history in which Regency England is overrun by zombies. It is not so much mashing up the original text, as creating a bandwagon new genre in which plagues of vampires, werewolves, mummies or other disreputable creatures are released into the literary wilds. I confess to being less than delighted by this shotgun marriage between what we may now call historical romance and more modern tropes. I do my best to be open-minded and am not against the idea in principle. There are some excellent historical fantasies in which magic and supernatural elements have been seamlessly blended into alternate histories of the world. But I confess to reading these mashup books with a health scepticism. You don’t have to pretend to be Austen, a Bontë, or some other luminary to write a good book. Put another way, parroting a plot from a classic novel cannot save an indifferent piece of writing.

All of which brings us to Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal. Here we are in Austen territory again. This is a classic Austen set-up with two daughters, a neurotic mother and concerned father as landed gentry stuck out in the West country. The language is reasonably well done and the social context is fairly convincing. The production of the physical book also helps. For once, TOR has broken with convention and has the lead page in each chapter with an old font and period setting, while the pages are not trimmed to produce the usual perfect edges. So we start off with a good look and feel.

I confess to initial feelings of doom and gloom as the opening passages turn into longer passages with little more than a fairly uninspiring pastiche of Austen. But, slowly, we also find ourselves introduced to a well-developed system of magic. This is a reimagining of the idea of ectoplasm — a visible substance thought to be produced by a medium during a trace. Kowal’s version of this phenomenon is drawn from the aether, taking on a physical appearance for the eye to see or holding sounds or melodies for the ear to hear. On a social level, it is up there with female skills such as playing the piano, singing or generally being decorative. It can hide blemishes of the skin and produce a more elegant dress for a social event. In a professional context, where men may be adjudged the masters, it can transform a room from a level of impoverished gentility to something spectacular. More importantly, such transformations persist over quite long periods of time so the less well-to-do can conceal their straightened circumstances with a little glamour.

There are immediate military applications with techniques that can conceal land-based defences, gun emplacements or even small numbers of troops or cavalry. This would allow the element of surprise as enemies innocently approach. It would be more difficult at sea because ships move around a little too much in the swell to remain effectively hidden for longer periods of time. Presumably, we will get into this in the second volume titled Glamour in Glass. As it is, we are left with the redoubtable female amateur meeting the professional male in an entirely social context. He considers her more than annoying because, with so little effort, she can deconstruct his methods and reproduce the effects. She considers him prickly and antisocial because he seems to reject the usual etiquette of the day.

On balance, I judge the whole to be reasonably successful. The magic of the glamour is innovative and the plot is twisted to produce an interesting climax in which all that has been learned is given a chance for practical application. Although it does rather lack humour and focuses too much on jealousies for my taste, this is not a mere Austen pastiche. It goes into new territory for a Regency romance by allowing a vengeful brother to seek personal satisfaction at the expense of the lothario who has trifled with his sister’s affections. More usually, these cads are bought off to save the family’s reputation. It also has some female empowerment with our heroine pulled from a sheltered life and encouraged to experience a more passionate way of seeing the world. So despite my initial scepticism, I am sufficiently interested to see how the magic system is developed, and have ordered the next book.

For the record, this book is one of the 2010 Nebula Awards Nominations. It’s also a finalist in the 2011 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.

For reviews of the sequels, see:
Glamour in Glass
Valour and Vanity
Without a Summer.

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