Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Non-spoilery review of the Glamourist Histories series by Mary Robinette Kowal

I read Mary Robinette Kowal's debut novel, "Shades of Milk and Honey," a few years ago when it came out. It's a novel of manners set in Regency England, with the addition of magic. The form magic takes in this world is glamour, a limited form of illusion that is mostly women's work, used for adorning the ladies and their homes, although there are a few male professionals who basically combine art and interior decoration. Much of the plot is similar to a somewhat simplified "Pride and Prejudice," although some elements are reversed and it builds up to a dramatic action-adventure conclusion. I thought it was a good read, entertaining if a little light, and I planned to look for her later books.

Last week, I spotted her third book in the Glamourist Histories, "Without a Summer," and checked it out. I also tracked down SoMaH again and found the second book, "Glamour in Glass." I figured it would take a week or so to get through them.

I finished them in three nights, one per night. I couldn't put them down, not even SoMaH, which was better than I remembered.

GiG is similar in tone, and like the first, it has a slow, weaving build to a dramatic finish, but other elements are very different. Although the protagonists have interesting, character-based conflicts, they are in Belgium and are increasingly affected by world events, including Napoleon's return to France, rather than mere social mores and misunderstandings. The viewpoint character, Jane, has to make hard choices and endured real consequences. The implications of glamour are examined and expanded. Another satisfying read.

But it was "Without a Summer" that really sold me on the series and the author. We see more of the social strata of the world now, with prejudices (examined prejudices, obviously not the author's views) spurring some people's actions. Along with historically accurate class, racial, and religious prejudices, the public irrationally blames coldmongers, specialized glamourists who help preserve food and suchlike, for the unusually long-lasting cold weather of 1816. The coldmongers were seemingly a convenient throwaway element from the first book, but here they become a major plot element. I love it when backstory comes to the forefront like that.

Other elements from the first book are also revisited in the third book, and revelations about longstanding misperceptions occur. In fact, MRK uses a wonderful metaphor for this cascade of revelations, and I was gasping, "Oh! OH! Wow!" as they all coalesced and bound all three books together. A meta-metaphor, if I can use such a term.

I went through a number of passages from the first and third books today, and yes, there were some strong hints of the hidden truths there, so MRK definitely played fair with the readers. But like Jane, I had glossed over those things as I kept following the current main actions, and so they were simultaneous revelations for me.

Some significant mistakes and misjudgments are made by the viewpoint character, who is so smart and perceptive in other ways, and MRK acknowledges Jane's debt to Austen's "Emma" in her afterword.  I'd be a little disenchanted, so to speak, if I thought MRK were just going through Austen's canon and adding glamour; however, the second book is its own thing, and even in the first and third books, there are plenty of non-magical plot elements and character actions that Austen would never have dreamed of writing. MRK can and does thank Austen, and I also noticed a few fun Easter Egg references to other authors' works, but she is definitely building her own rich world here. I can't wait to see where MRK takes this series next.

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