I continue to adore these books. That’s all you really need to know, right?
This is the fourth book in the Glamourist Histories, in which Mary Robinette Kowal creates an alt version of the English Regency period and gives it ‘glamour’, a form of magic that is generally used to decorate the sitting rooms of the gentry but which can also (we discovered in the last book) be used to create cold, and which maybe just might have military uses as well. I think this book could stand by itself – glamour isn’t that hard to comprehend and the relationships between the two main characters, Jane and Vincent, and their respective families are both spelled out and not vitally important to the plot. But of course, WHY would you want this book to stand by itself? Just read all of them!
If you haven’t yet read the series, there was a spoiler in the first paragraph – sorry – Jane and Vincent end up married. But come on, this is an historical romance with magic; yes I’m sure ‘grimdark’ has made its mark on that genre somewhere, but it’s not here and that’s quite nice, thankyouverymuch. So things generally end up nice at the end… but if you’ve never read this genre and you assume this means everything is always roses, HECK NO. Kowal is quite happy to put her characters through very nasty events. Here, Jane and Vincent are off to visit Murano (near Venice) to visit the glassblowers, but their ship is hijacked and they end up penniless in Murano. In a world without fast communication or access to emergency funds, in a country where they know no one. They’ve never been filthy rich, but neither of them have ever struggled like this before.
There are many things I loved about this novel.
1. Jane and Vincent’s relationship. How often do we get beautiful, complicated married relationships at the core of a story? Where although they’re hitched, there’s still romance… and where complications are real and frightening but working them out is a real and worthwhile goal. I just love this portrayal of love in marriage, not least because it’s not perfect. Both of them do detrimental things, but it’s not the end of the world – and it’s not simply ignored, either, but worked out and worked through.
2. Jane. Jane Jane Jane. Determined, fragile, strong, plucky, innocent, smart. And with marvellous flashes of feminism – she knows Mary Wollstonecraft, hurrah.
3. “The magical adventure that might result if Jane Austen wrote Ocean’s Eleven.” That’s from the blurb, and forgets that Austen didn’t write magic, but anyway whatever. Yes, the plot. Oh my goodness. A heist! Double dealing, shenanigans, gondolas and magic and puppeteers (heh – Kowal is one herself) and nuns. Also international conspiracies and disguises and Byron.*
4. The prose. It’s delightful and ever so readable and captures the places and people beautifully. I don’t love fashion – I’m closer to Vincent than to Jane in my reaction to the necessity to purchase clothes – but Kowal’s attention to detail and simplicity of description amuse even me.
5. It’s not the same as the others. I’d probably still read it, even if it was the same sort of adventures over and over again, but it’s not. Well, there are similarities – difficulties to be overcome, new people to meet and either befriend or contend with – but Jane and Vincent do actually grow and develop over time, and the sorts of problems they face are also different.
6. Issues. This series makes no claims to tackling major issues, but they certainly do not ignore them. The class issues have been present, sometimes as undercurrent and sometimes overtly, from the start – never solved, but certainly problematised. Race appeared as a serious issue in the last book and is acknowledged here as well. Gender is always an issue; that Jane is competent and works as a glamourist, that Vincent is excelling in a traditionally feminine sphere – both of these continue to be part of the complex society presented, along with other problematic aspects of gender relations in the period.
You can get Valour and Vanity over at Fishpond. And you want to. Seriously.
*Don’t worry, not a lot of Byron. Just enough to be amusing but not enough (in my opinion) to get eye-rolly.