Posts Tagged magic

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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Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s “Kindred Rites” is Fantastic Frontier Fiction

Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s KINDRED RITES is the second book in a series about young Alfreda “Allie” Sorensson, a magic practitioner from an alternate, frontier version of Michigan. (The first book, NIGHT CALLS, was reviewed here).**

Because Allie is quite far out of the common way when it comes to magic due to her enormous power, she’s been apprenticed to her Aunt Marta and sent off to learn magic. However, she’s still close to her family and visits often — which is one of the reasons KINDRED RITES starts off with Allie back home, dealing with a poltergeist and wondering why she can’t seem to catch a break.

Even Allie, you see, sometimes wants to be normal. And normality, for 19th Century Michigan, whether it contains magic or not, means getting to know your neighbors as they may make the difference between life and death on the frontier. (It’s not all about politeness; it’s more about practicality.) So when an intriguing young man named Erik Hudson talks with her at a local dance, she takes notice . . . even though it’s not necessarily for the way she thinks at first.

See, Allie is way too young to date or court. And she knows it. But because she’s tall for her age, and accomplished, too, young men have started to sniff around her. Providing they’re polite about it — and Erik is oh, so achingly polite — all she can do is grit her teeth and bear it.

Allie’s aware that she’s different in this regard from her frivolous, yet fun friend Idelia, a girl who’s looking forward to marriage already, and enjoys pitting one pubescent boy after another against each other. Being different from her normal, non-magical friend makes Allie feel sad.

But Allie doesn’t have time for sadness. Despite her extreme youth, she’s already quite competent at midwifery and other healing skills, and is sometimes sent to deal with problems when Aunt Marta is not available. Note that Marta is not being negligent — it’s just that if there’s two births at once, it’s obvious that Marta must attend one while Allie must attend the other. As this is how apprenticeships of all sorts worked in the 19th Century, as teenagers were expected to be responsible (even as young as thirteen) while learning a saleable craft, this detail adds an additional level of verisimilitude.

But getting sent out by herself means Allie’s exposed to far more dangers . . . including kidnapping, which happens at the moment she least expects it. And even though she’s already known to Azrael, the Angel of Death, something that’s unheard of for a thirteen-year-old magic user, Azrael can only advise her if asked.

Will Allie be able to defeat the kidnappers and return home? Or won’t she? And what will she learn about herself along the way? All of those questions, plus many more besides, will be answered. But as usual in the books of Ms. Kimbriel, they’ll raise even more, intriguing questions.

Allie is a compelling character, who does what farm girls from that time period did (card wool, quilt, gather herbs, cook) along with her study of magic. Her world feels real, her studies feel real, and her exasperation at Idelia over Idelia’s mooning over boys feels real, too.

Furthermore, Allie’s world contains many dangers. Her talents aren’t so prodigious that she can’t be endangered — it’s precisely because she’s so talented that she is endangered. And because she’s more self-aware than most thirteen-year-olds, she’s aware of this, too . . . which heightens the tension of Allie’s efforts to survive after being kidnapped.

Bottom line? This is one of the best historical dark fantasies I’ve ever read. I deeply enjoyed Allie’s second tale, and plan to re-read it many, many times over the years to come.

One final thought: If you’ve not read any of Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s books yet, what’s stopping you?

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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