Glamour in Glass is the second book in the Regency fantasy series by Mary Robinette Kowal. It is one of two novels with strong romantic elements nominated for a Nebula for Best Novel (the other is Ironskin, which I've also reviewed for Smart Bitches). It is refined and elegant as a Jane Austen tribute should be, with a dash of action and a surprisingly gritty splash of trauma
Because Glamour and Glass is the second book in a series, this review contains some spoilers for the first book, so if you want to stop reading here to read the first book, Shades of Milk and Honey ( A | BN | K | S | ARe | iB ) let me tell you that you won't regret it. Shades is a lovely book.
Here's the synopsis of Glamour, from Kowal's website:
Mary Robinette Kowal stunned readers with her charming first novel Shades of Milk and Honey, a loving tribute to the works of Jane Austen, set in a world where magic is an everyday occurrence. This magic comes in the form of glamour, which allows talented users to form practically any illusion they can imagine. Shades went on to earn great acclaim, became a finalist for the prestigious Nebula and Locus Awards, and left readers eagerly awaiting its sequel, Glamour in Glass, which continues to follow the lives of beloved main characters Jane and Vincent, with a deeper vein of drama and intrigue.
In the tumultuous months after Napoleon abdicates his throne, Jane and Vincent go to France for their honeymoon. While there, the deposed emperor escapes his exile in Elba, throwing the continent into turmoil. With no easy way back to England, they struggle to escape. But when Vincent is captured, Jane is left to use her glamour to rescue her husband from prison… and hopefully prevent her newly built marriage from getting stranded on the shoals of another country’s war.
This is a hard review to write because I keep hopping over to Mary Robinette Kowal's website for “research”. Her website is super cool, if I may use a technical literary expression. I'm especially fond of her card game based on the first Regency book, Shades of Milk and Honey. That's some true geek awesomeness, that is. Although nothing says “Geek Cred” like this cover she made with John Scalzi and compatriots. It is very hard to focus on reviewing the actual book at hand with all this Regency Fantasy Sci-Fi crack lurking in my computer.
By now there are three books in this series, with Glamour being the second book, and the books are very Jane Austen-y. If you are a Jane Fan who also likes fantasy, you will love this. Kowal writes books that are subtle and refined, while still being romantic and exciting. Shades was a small-scale story about love and marriage, while Glamour and its sequel, Without a Summer( A | BN | K | S | ARe ), get more involved in espionage and action.
What I think is interesting is that the heroine of all three books, Jane, isn't really interested in derring-do or being unconventional. What she really wants is to be recognized for her work as a glamourist, be happy with her husband, and be generally “correct” in the manners of society. Whenever her decorum is shattered by life events, she deals with it as efficiently as possible and then goes right back to her tea. She also has a rather refreshing immunity to drama. Jane is always levelheaded and practical and cautious (her caution leads to both hilarious and devastating results in Without a Summer) while her mother and sister and husband are given to brooding and sighing and carrying-on.
In the first book, Jane does in fact get to be a pretty conventional heroine, but the second book shakes things up for her. Jane's work as a glamourist isn't too unconventional because most glamourists are women (it is her husband, Vincent, who had to struggle against his family to be able to pursue his work as a glamourist). However, Jane is first annoyed because her work tends to be overlooked in favor of Vincent's, and then she's rather taken aback to discover that she is pregnant. It is believed that the practice of magic is harmful during pregnancy and although Jane thought she wanted children, she resents the inactivity imposed upon her just as Vincent seems increasing involved with his work.
Ultimately, Jane has to become something of an action heroine. The fact that this is totally against her nature, and that she does it because she loves her husband far more than anything else in her life, makes it not only exciting but moving – much more moving than if she had always longed for a life of adventure.
There is a possible emotional trigger near the end. Here's the SPOILER: After using all her ingenuity to save Vincent without using glamour, Jane is finally forced to use it after all and she suffers a very bloody and painful miscarriage.
The book's technical ability can't be faulted. Kowal is a simply lovely writer, with layered characters who grow and change over the course of the books, good dialogue, and a well-thought out concept. Here's a sample of her writing, during a scene in which Vincent and Jane visit a glass-blower to see if they can work glamour in glass:
Vast skylights lit the workshop with warm winter sun, which made the glass sparkle brilliantly. M. La Pierre bade them stand some distance from the largest furnace and watch his apprentice work. Even with a heavy leather apron and gloves protecting him, the boy must have felt the heat terribly. In some ways, it was like watching glamour drawn in the physical world, as he worked a blob of molten glass into a refined and elegant shape. The red glow absorbed Jane, and she found herself possessed of a sort of jealousy that the apprentice was making something physical and of service. As much as she loved glamour, the illusions had few practical applications. Only the charms for cooling had any daily use, and those were limited by the amount of energy required to work them.
As far as romance goes, I do like the romance in this series, but it certainly isn't a series of romance novels. The second and third books, Glamour and Without a Summer, focus on the marriage between Jane and Vincent and the events surrounding them. I like reading about how established couples make their relationship work. Unfortunately, I generally am not that crazy about taciturn brooding heroes, so Vincent doesn't sweep me, personally, off my feet, but I do like Jane and Vincent's relationship and the challenges they face, whether these challenges involve how to deal with a meddling mother-in-law or how to deal with an invading army.
I think fans of Jane Austen and fans of Regency romance will like Glamour, and so will fans of subtle, well-thought out, elegant fantasy. I do think it's best to start with Shades, but Glamour is easy to follow as a stand-alone. Don't expect too much focus on romance except in Shades, but do expect a thoughtful examination of a complicated marriage.