Posts Tagged alternate Regency fantasy

Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Valour and Vanity” Is a Perfect Alternate-Regency Read

Sorry about the long hiatus, folks. I was getting one of my books to bed, and that took some time…now, since A LITTLE ELFY IN BIG TROUBLE has been turned in, I can get back to reviewing.

Valour and VanityVALOUR AND VANITY is the fourth book in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories featuring Lady Jane and David, Lord Vincent — a married pair of glamourists (read: magicians) living and working in the Regency era. (Please see SBR’s previous reviews for SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY, GLAMOUR IN GLASS, and WITHOUT A SUMMER for further details.)

VALOUR AND VANITY starts off with Jane and Vincent being on a trip with Jane’s family — particularly Jane’s newlywed sister and brother-in-law. They’ve been enjoying themselves on a family mini-tour of Europe, but Jane and Vincent need to go take care of some glamourist business…as they’re nobles, and as Vincent knows Lord Byron (yes, that Byron), they’ve decided to go to the island of Murano (in Italy, now considered part of Venice) as he’s staying there. But their real purpose in Murano is to consult with the legendary glassmakers of that island.

Note that Jane is a full partner in this marriage. It’s viewed as a loving eccentricity by most, as Vincent does not like to be away from Jane for very long. But Jane’s gifts are just as strong as Vincent’s…and that’s going to be needed.


Let’s put it this way. The trip to Murano does not go off without a hitch. Instead, Jane and Vincent are robbed. Lord Byron isn’t around and his “housekeeper” (actually his mistress) doesn’t know when he’ll be back. And the man who “restores” their belongings and puts them up in style isn’t all that he seems.

So they’ve been robbed. Some of their wealth has been temporarily restored, which they take at face value. And they find a glassmaker — one “recommended” by the same shady figure who “rescued” them– and start in with the work they need to do. And they create some glamour in glass, something that may aid soldiers and others during daylight in hiding themselves rather than something for art’s sake.

Then the shady character disappears, with their belongings…most especially the enchanted glass Vincent and Jane just spent so much time creating. And the law shows up.

You’d think this would be a good thing, but it isn’t. While the law does say this shady figure was not the nobleman he was pretending to be, the law doesn’t seem to believe Jane and Vincent. Further, the shady guy managed to get the “replacement funds” Jane and Vincent had written for…which means their bank account is empty. They’re left impoverished, without resources, and have no allies.

So what’s to do?

If you’ve read the previous three books in this series, you know Jane and Vincent will not go down without a fight. Of course they’re going to find a way out of this mess. They will find allies — some quite unexpected, some expected (as Byron eventually shows and wants in on the action) — and they will do whatever they must to set the record straight.

(Note that I would not normally give away so much of the plot in a review, but Ms. Kowal’s site (and the book’s own front matter) says that VALOUR AND VANITY is much like what would happen “if Jane Austen wrote Ocean’s Eleven.”)

Anyway, while there’s plenty of plot — it’s a heist novel, after all! — the main things I adored about VALOUR AND VANITY were the quieter touches. Jane and Vincent get along very well in all circumstances, both personally and professionally, and that’s great to see. I admired their indomitable spirits, and believed that together they truly are stronger than apart.

Of course, Jane and Vincent cannot see themselves from the outside. But we can. And we know they are heroes…even though they, themselves, definitely don’t.

Bottom line? VALOUR AND VANITY couples realistic romance with genuine action, excellent historicity, entirely believable magic and genuine pathos for a perfect read.

Grade: A-plus

–reviewed by Barb

**For readers of romance: I’ve been asked to give “heat levels,” and I’m going to try to remember to do that. The “heat level” here is very mild…they’re married, and we know they enjoy marital relations. But those relations, beyond a kiss or two, are not shown.

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Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Without a Summer” — Another Excellent Alternate Regency, with Magic

Mary Robinette Kowal’s work is no stranger to Shiny Book Review. She writes Jane Austen-inspired Regency novels with a magical kick called glamour, and writes them quite well. Her characters Jane, Lady Vincent, and David, Lord Vincent (called Vincent), are the rarest of the rare in the Regency era — they are both professional glamourists who work best together, showcasing both the perils and the benefits such an arrangement between two working spouses can bring. (Note that books one and two of her Glamourist Histories were reviewed here.)

In book three of her Glamourist Histories, WITHOUT A SUMMER, Jane and her husband, Vincent, are still dealing with the fallout from the events of GLAMOUR IN GLASS. Jane’s actions in breaking her husband out of a French prison via the use of glamour caused her to suffer a miscarriage. She and Vincent are still mourning, but they’ve thrown their pain into new and better works of glamour; that they have the attention of the Prince Regent due to Vincent’s military heroism and their own talents has made Vincent’s estranged father, Lord Verbury, try to horn back into their lives.

Not that he’s likely to do so, as Jane and Vincent distrust Verbury for very good reasons . . . but I digress.

As you might expect if you have any knowledge of history dealing with the early 19th Century, WITHOUT A SUMMER takes place during 1816 — the year Europe and much of the world did not have a summer at all. There was hardship, famine, and many difficulties in our world; in Jane and Vincent’s world, the coldmongers — who have a type of magic that can only make things colder (quite valuable in summer, useless in the winter) — are being blamed for 1816’s terrible and unprecedentedly cold weather, which adds yet another layer of complexity to an already challenging situation.

Now, why are the coldmongers important? (Aside from their obvious fantasy value, that is.) Well, Jane’s much prettier (but talentless) sister Melody has finally found a good man — Alastar O’Brien, heir to Lord Stratton — but there are three problems with a potential match between them: One, Mr. O’Brien is Irish. Two, Mr. O’Brien is Roman Catholic. And three, Mr. O’Brien is well-known as one of the coldmongers’ strongest partisans . . . so when intrigue relating to the coldmongers causes him and the Vincents to be called into question later on, you can see where Melody’s marital aspirations might be impeded.

The Irish, back in 1816, were not well thought of at all. Even though many Irish lords had roots that dated back to England, and had family in England, that didn’t matter. The Irish were only just becoming a part of what was starting to be known as the United Kingdom, and as such, they were not well understood and prejudice against them was high.

And a big part of that prejudice was because most Irish were Roman Catholic. The Catholic religion was also not understood or appreciated, partly going back to what caused the Anglican church to split off in the first place: Henry VIII’s wish to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon not being granted by Pope Clement VII. (We tend to think of Henry VIII as “divorcing” his wives to remarry, but he actually had annulled many of his wives in order to marry the next.) The Catholic Church did not believe in Henry VIII’s sort of behavior, and as such, the Anglican Church and the Catholic Church were at great odds with each other — at least in principle.

So the fact that Jane, who’s a kind-hearted woman, says ridiculously slanted things to Melody at first about her love, Alastar O’Brien, and only later learns how biased and prejudiced these things are is true to the spirit of the times. It shows just how much intolerance there was toward the Irish, even the Irish lords. And it shows just how difficult a “mixed” marriage between a Catholic Irish lordling and an Anglican well-bred miss could be, without preachiness or undue sentimentality.

I enjoyed all of the romantic elements, the historical elements, and especially the fantasy elements of WITHOUT A SUMMER. But the standout moments here were the quietest, and had to do with the ongoing marriage between Jane and Vincent. These two love each other unreservedly, and with an understated but very real passion . . . that they both live and work together and enjoy it thoroughly is both a very modern touch, yet a very traditional one at the same time.

And it’s also very, very hard to pull off, but Ms. Kowal does so with the greatest of aplomb.

Ms. Kowal takes on some huge themes (prejudice, the problems of incorporating technology in a previously agriculturally based society, and needless and unrelenting cruelty coming from people who should love you, but just don’t for whatever reason) along with some more “minor” themes dealing with family relations, the problems a married couple faces when both of them work, and many more. But WITHOUT A SUMMER does not suffer for all of that — instead, it thrives.

Bottom line? Don’t miss WITHOUT A SUMMER, as it mixes the best of romance with the best of alternate history, and comes out a major, major winner.

Grade: A-plus.

–reviewed by Barb

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SBR 2-for-1 Special: Kowal’s Alternate Regency Fantasies — Fun, Fast Reads

As promised — it’s July 5, 2012, and Shiny Book Review is back.  Now, on to tonight’s reviews, this time for Mary Robinette Kowal’s two alternate Regency fantasies, SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY, and GLAMOUR IN GLASS.  Both novels are about Jane Ellsworth and the people around her, particularly her love interest, Mr. Vincent, and her sister, Melody, who plays a substantial role in the first book.  The structure of SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY is very like that of Jane Austen’s novels (in particular, referencing PRIDE AND PREJUDICE); the main difference is with regards to the fantasy element, something called glamour that seems very like artwork and painting, except with the aether.

When SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY starts, we find out that Jane feels like she is plain despite her strong talents with glamour.  Jane’s talent is like a breath of fresh air, and she’s so good with her glamour that people with sense believe she’s an artist of a certain kind — or at least that she could be, with the right training because she has much talent.  But her family doesn’t have the money to send her for advanced training; instead, they mostly seem to be trying to marry both her and her much prettier, younger (yet talentless) sister, Melody, off.

In comes Mr. Ellsworth, a potential suitor; he also has a younger sister, Beth, who is attached to a military man, Captain Livingston (read: Mr. Wickham from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE).  But, of course, the good Captain is not just double-timing Beth; no, that would be too easy.  Instead, he’s triple-timing her with Jane’s sister and another, much wealthier woman — which causes many complexities, plot-wise, for Jane, her sister, and of course for the hapless Beth as well.  (All I’ll say about Melody is this: she doesn’t find her soul mate in either novel, though according to the end of SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY, Melody will eventually find the right man and marry.)

Along the way, Jane meets Mr. Vincent, who has been properly trained in glamour and is the equivalent of a Rembrandt or possibly even a Leonardo da Vinci in how inventive and fresh his glamourized art can be.  But, of course, they don’t take to one another right off (shades of Mr. Darcy in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, though the analogy only holds so far), and Vincent tends to keep putting his foot in his mouth whenever it comes to Jane . . . so whatever will happen?  (Hint, hint: if you’ve read any of the Austen canon, you know full well what’s about to transpire.)

SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY is at its best when Jane and Vincent are fully on stage, mostly because their dialogue is witty and sprightly.  The fantasy element of glamour helps to keep the romance going, even though I called every single plot twist early on, mostly because I’ve read my Austen thoroughly.  That’s not a weakness here, as this is definitely a novel that’s all about Jane’s journey from mild-mannered “plain” Jane to a young woman who’s actualized her entire self, from realizing her love for the difficult Vincent to accepting that her talent for glamour is strong enough for her to consider herself an artist — or at least consider the possibility that she may become an artist down the road if she sticks with Vincent and follows her heart.

GLAMOUR IN GLASS opens after Jane has married Mr. Vincent.  They’ve now become attached to Prince George of England, as their talents for glamour are so strong that royalty has taken an interest.  However, the war with Napoleon, which had temporarily abated after Napoleon had been sent to Elba, has resumed after Napoleon’s daring escape; despite that, Jane and Vincent set off for Belgium on their honeymoon.  And as you might expect, they end up plunged into intrigue from the get-go.  (If I say much about the intrigue, I’ll give the plot away, so I’ll stop there.)

However, there’s a bit of a problem along the way; it seems that Jane is pregnant, which keeps her from using her talents for glamour as that’s known to harm the unborn child.  Yet Vincent ends up overtaxed and in great distress; whatever will Jane do?  And once she’s done it, what will she end up thinking about it?

The main difference between SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY and GLAMOUR IN GLASS is this: the latter book is much more of an action-adventure story (granted, an action-adventure story written in the way Jane Austen might have written it, with period dialect and mores intact).  That keeps GLAMOUR IN GLASS moving along nicely.  Of course, as this is an alternate Regency, that means Napoleon’s fate isn’t exactly the same in GLAMOUR IN GLASS as it was in our world, but I enjoyed the different spin Kowal put on it and believed that it made sense in the context of her novel.

Overall, both books read well and quickly, especially if you’ve read any Jane Austen before or have read any of the Austen pastiches (including Sarah A. Hoyt and Sofie Skapski’s excellent A TOUCH OF NIGHT).  Kowal’s writing skills are superb and she understands the Regency milieu well, which is why both books were a pleasure to read.

Bottom line:  if you love Jane Austen, alternate Regencies (such as the André Norton/Rosemary Edghill CAROLUS REX series), or just plain good writing, you should buy both of these books as soon as you can.  Because they really are fantastic.




— reviewed by Barb

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