Jane Austen + Magic + Swordfights = Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamour in Glass

glamouringlass031113Editor’s note: Joel is reading his way through the finalists for the 2012 Nebula Award for best sci-fi/fantasy novel. Read his introduction here.

Look, I love Jane Austen books as much as the next guy (provided the next guy’s love of Jane Austen books is limited to reading her shortest book and watching at least three separate adaptations of Pride & Prejudice), but no one is ever going to call her writing action-packed. Unless a bunch a well-dressed ladies making veiled catty comments to one aother during a boring social event counts as action in your book. In which case, I hope you are sitting down when you read Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamour in Glass, because in Austen’s terms, this thing might as well have been written by Michael Bay.

Glamour in Glass is the second in Kowal’s “Glamourist Histories,” which began with 2010’s Shades of Milk and Honey. Both books are broadly classified as Regency Romances, with the added fun of taking place in a world where magic exists. The first novel is a quasi-feminist exploration of gender roles of the Regency era. That magic I mentioned? It’s called “glamour,” and is considered useless in practical terms; a skill primarily nurtured in well-born women, it is used to create artistic illusions that can make a shabby house look well-decorated, or make a painting move. The first book is about Jane (natch), your typical plain spinster, who is skilled in glamour but hopeless at finding a husband. She falls for a most unlikely (read: most blindingly obvious) suitor, the gruff and distant Mr. Vincent, a rare male master glamourist.

You probably don’t really need to read Shades of Milk and Honey before tackling the sequel, but both books are worth the time, provided this sounds like your thing (simple test: how do you react to the words “Jane Austen pastiche”?). Book One really does have an Austen feel, and does a fine job sketching out the way glamour operates in what is otherwise our world’s early 19th century England. For example, Kowal explains that practicing glamour causes constant physical fatigue, and yet many women use it to improve their physical appearances, nicely injecting a bit of social commentary and providing, in classic Regency style, a plot excuse for characters to faint dramatically at opportune moments.

As much as I enjoyed it, Shades of Milk and Honey never felt like the start of a series to me, and I suspect it didn’t to Kowal either, until it sold well and garnered her a Nebula nomination. You can really feel her stretching the concept in Glamour in Glass, which pretty much leaves Austenland behind and ventures into more melodramatic waters. Spoiler alert: Now married, Jane and Vincent are in business together, creating illusions for the gentry and attending more exciting dinner parties. Napoleon has just been defeated, and travel to the continent is once again safe, so the couple heads to Belgium for a late honeymoon, a happy occasion soon disrupted when Vincent starts acting cold and distant toward his wife and the former emperor escapes from exile and marches on France.

Glamour in Glass is never exactly what I’d call exciting, but it does have a hell of a lot more action than its predecessor (which did have a pistol duel, and was thus already monocle-droppingly, lace-fanningly heart-racing, in Austen terms). There’s spying, and secret messages, and kidnapping, and swordplay, and intrigue. There is also more development of glamour, which I continue to enjoy; the title refers to attempts to “store” a glamour spell in a glass orb so it can be used without causing fatigue.

The expanded glamour lore brings me to my primary quibble about the book, and the series as a whole: Kowal hasn’t fully thought through how the existence of magic would really change a society. To wit: it has apparently never occurred to anyone at any time in history that the ability to create illusions might have applications outside of making hallways look fancier. In book one, Vincent invents a types of glamour that essentially turns him invisible, and it never occurs to him that this glamour might have military applications. In a world that is otherwise a carbon copy of our own, this sort of convenient plotting makes the characters appear monstrously stupid, and the world-building rather shallow.

If you can avoid thinking too hard about that, though, this is another worthy installment in what is shaping up to be a very successful series, with a third book, Without a Summer, on the way later this year.

Why was it nominated? Hard to say, other than the fact that the first was obviously well-liked, and this one offers more of the same fine writing and strong characterization.

Does it have a shot at the Nebula? I’m going to say no. In many ways, it treads the same ground as the first book, which had to content itself with a mere nomination. I haven’t read through the rest of the contenders yet, but I’m wagering the same will hold true this year.

Have you read either of the novels in this series? Do you think Glamour in Glass has a shot at the Nebula?

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