Without a Summer: the third Glamourist History
The following has spoilers for Shades of Milk and Honey and Glamour in Glass, I guess. Seriously, why haven’t you read them yet?
I read this quite a long time ago, and I have no real excuse for not having reviewed it earlier; it’s certainly no reflection on the story. Is it a good story? Yes. Does it fit in well with the other two Glamour novels? Yes. I think that this is the sort of book you don’t need to read the review of, if you’ve already read the others or like the idea of Jane Austen with magic (basically). Actually that’s not quite right… this one, in particular, is more like Elizabeth Gaskell with magic – and I say that having only watched film/TV versions of Gaskell, but given she’s described as Austen with ethics (that is, a more explicit examination of society and ethics than Austen), I feel I can make that claim. Because here Kowal does get into some discussion of class, in particular, and race as well.
The idea of a year ‘without a summer’ is actually based on fact; 1816 was a year that felt summer-less, because of the effects of volcanic ash from an eruption in the ‘East Indies’ as Kowal describes it. For the sake of the novel, Kowal introduces the idea of blaming this on coldmongers – people whose glamour is particularly attuned to making cold, so they get jobs doing things like keeping food or rooms cool. The story has both political aspects – which revolves especially around class – and personal aspects, which also revolves around class and race but also around family relationships.
The political: this is a time of Luddites, and issues of unemployment; tie in the cold, and fear of glamourists, and there’s a very dangerous situation brewing. It would be hard to talk about that without giving away some of the details whose revelation is part of the delight of the story, so I won’t. Suffice to say that the concerns Kowal raises fit perfectly into the period, and complement the personal issues going on for Jane and Vincent perfectly.
The personal: Jane and Vincent are faced with a number of issues to deal with, and to my delight not all of them are dealt with easily. The one that most struck me, by the end, was Jane’s relationship with her sister Melody. Pride and Prejudice hints at the difficulty of older and younger sisters relating, as does Sense and Sensibility – but these tend to show the older as being in the right, and the younger as needing to be tamed in some way. Kowal does very clever things here with that trope; Jane and Melody’s relationship is more realistic, and more painful, than in the Austens – and this makes the story the more uncomfortable and real as a result. Secondly, there’s the introduction of Vincent’s family. They’ve been less than shadows to this point; all that we’ve known is that Vincent has cut himself off in order to be a glamourist, and his family don’t approve – and that they’re from High Standing. They arrive with a vengeance here, and Kowal spares no mercy. Vincent definitely comes out of the whole thing as a more impressive man for overcoming the family issues that he was dealt.
Some of the other issues facing the pair mingle with the political. In particular, they are confronted by race issues, both because many of the coldmongers – whose problems they can hardly help themselves from being involved with, touching as it does on glamour more generally – are black, and because one of the families they end up heavily involved with are Irish. This may seem strange to those without knowledge of how the United Kingdom worked in the nineteenth century; but as Kowal points out in her afterword, at this time “the notion of ‘white’ excluded not only people of Anglo-African or Anglo-Indian descent but also Irish” (356). Some of Jane’s own prejudices are confronted, along with those of London at large – not comfortably, but I think, for the reader anyway (at least, this white reader; I won’t try to imagine how to read it as someone confronted with racism on a regular basis) in a sympathetic manner. That is, not that the racism is easy to read, but the confronting of it is more like what 21st century tolerant sensibilities would prefer.
I’m sure I had more to say when I originally read this, but – the characters remain engaging and delightful, Kowal continues to find genuine circumstances for them to interact with, and her style remains a delight to read. I’m not sure if I want more stories here; there would surely be a danger of Jane and Vincent turning into the unexpected epicentre of everything interesting in 19th-century England, which would end up being silly. And would insist on bringing up the issue of pregnancy and children… which might not be a bad thing, I just can’t think how it would be done. But then, I’m not an author. Maybe I should just Kowal to know what is best for her characters…
You can get Without a Summer from Fishpond.