Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal

Valour and Vanity, by Mary Robinette Kowal, was published in 2014 by Tor. It is the sequel to Without a Summer.

After Melody’s wedding, the Ellsworths and Vincents accompany the young couple on their tour of the continent. Jane and Vincent plan to separate from the party and travel to Murano to study with glassblowers there, but their ship is set upon by Barbary corsairs. It is their good fortune that they are not enslaved, but they lose everything to the pirates and arrive in Murano destitute. Jane and Vincent are helped by a kind local they meet en route, but Vincent is determined to become self-reliant and get their money back and hatches a plan to do so. But when so many things are not what they seem, even the best laid plans conceal a few pitfalls. The ensuing adventures is a combination of the best parts of magical fantasy and heist novels, set against a glorious Regency backdrop.

Rating: 4/5

Valour and Vanity is much better than I remember Without a Summer being, though, granted, it’s been a while since I’ve read the latter. It’s a delightful heist novel, though the heist itself does not take place until the last third of the book, and the build-up to the heist is slow, yet never a trudge, and filled with appropriate tension and mystery. While the reason Jane and Vincent need to pull off a heist seems overly elaborate, it’s acknowledged by the characters and seems warranted due to the circumstances.

I prefer fantasy novels that, if they have complicated magic, it makes sense and is explained well. I don’t understand the glamour aspect of Kowal’s world and I don’t think I ever have or ever will. Kowal explains it often enough, but I’ve never been able to grasp the concept. I’m not sure if that’s a flaw in the design or simply a flaw in my understanding. It does make things a little hard to understand, and read, when it gets to the technicalities, such as the glass glamour spheres the Vincents are working on and all that complicated glamour stuff they do for the heist. Kowal at least makes it to the side of “understandable enough to pass muster,” though the system still seems confusing overall.

The previous two books in the series seemed a little more complicated and far-reaching than this one, and I really enjoyed the more simple nature of Valour and Vanity. Odd to say of a heist novel, I know. It further developed and resolved some storylines from the previous books, but the scope did not seem as large, nor did there seem to be so many interacting characters and storylines. There was much more of a focus on the development of Jane and Vincent’s characterization and relationship, done wonderfully well. This was probably my favorite book after the original, and it’s not even because of the heist, though that was well done. The characterization is delightful and that, above all, is what made me enjoy Valour and Vanity so much.

Recommended Age Range: 15+

Warnings: Implied sex within marriage.

Genre: Fantasy

“What is it you wish to make.”

“A sphere of cristallo.”

“That’s it? Just a ball?”

“A perfect sphere.” Vincent rolled his shoulders. “I shall need you to hold it quite steady as we cast glamour into it. The glassmaker we used in Binché—”

“I know what I am about, sir. You do not need to instruct me.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2t0CqZL

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Without A Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal

Without a Summer, by Mary Robinette Kowal, was published in 2013 by Tor. It is the sequel to Glamour in Glass.

After a dramatic trip to Belgium, Jane and Vincent go to Long Parkmeade to spend time with Jane’s family, but quickly turn restless. The spring is unseasonably cold, and no one wants to be outside. Mr. Ellsworth is concerned about the harvest, since a poor one may imperil Melody’s dowry. And Melody has concerns of her own, given the inadequate selection of local eligible bachelors. When Jane and Vincent receive a commission from a prominent London family, they take it, and bring Melody with them. They hope the change of scenery will do her good, and her marriage prospects—and mood—will be brighter in London. Talk here frequently turns to increased unemployment of coldmongers and riots in nearby villages by Luddites concerned that their way of life is becoming untenable. With each passing day, it’s more difficult to avoid getting embroiled in the intrigue, which does not really help Melody’s chances for romance. It doesn’t take long for Jane and Vincent to realize that in addition to arranging a wedding, they must take on one small task: solving a crisis of national proportions.

Without a Summer is not quite as good as I thought Shades of Milk and Honey and Glamour in Glass were, but it is far from bad. I loved, once again, the nods to Jane Austen—specifically, Emma—that Kowal placed in the book, and I especially enjoyed seeing more development from Jane, who makes plenty of foolish mistakes in this book and learns exactly why she made them and how to change that fact.

Melody also had a lot of development from the first book, and Kowal exhibits very well how much she has changed since then. There’s a scene close to the end of the book that shows exactly how much Melody has changed and how that has changed the dynamic between the two sisters, and it was wonderful to see that development brought to fruition in that scene and in the ones after.

Not much development is made in terms of glamour and the technique Jane and Vincent discovered in the last book, which was slightly disappointing. Kowal placed the more glamour-heavy aspects of her world aside to deal with political intrigue, instead. It made for a thrilling court scene at the end, but I missed the aspects of the world that made it so fantastic (meaning “fantasy”, not “awesome,” although it is also that).

Kudos to Kowal, who seemed to be taking the plot in one direction (at one point, during a Jane & Vincent Revelation, I thought “Ah ha! This is what is going to happen!”) and then skillfully turned it around before I even noticed. I love it when plots surprise me!

Rating: 4/5

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Some small innuendo between Jane and her husband.

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction

“The weather truly has been wretched.” Mr. Colgrove vied for Melody’s attention. “I was telling Lady Vincent that we had dismissed our coldmongers because they were an unnecessary expense.”

Another gentleman tucked his hands behind his back with a complacent look. “As did we. They demand high wages for the little they do.”

Miss Godwin tilted her head, ostrich feathers waving gracefully above her hair, and pointed her fan at Mr. Colgrove. “If the weather changes, what will you do then?”

“Why, ask Mr. Moyer to cool the room. What is a coldmonger, but a glamourist who can do only one thing? Why retain one when you can hire someone who can do both?”

Overall Review:

Without A Summer is a little disappointing in terms of worldbuilding; I had wished to see more aspects of glamour and more insight into the technique Jane and Vincent developed in Glamour in Glass. However, the character interactions and the political intrigue are very well-done and lend themselves well to the development of Jane & Co., and even though there was less glamour in this novel, it had double the amount of character development to make up for it. I especially loved the tribute to Emma (complete with quotes!).

You can buy this book here: Without a Summer

Glamour In Glass: Wherein Jane Becomes Awesome

Glamour in Glass is written by Mary Robinette Kowal. It was published in 2012 by Tor. It is the sequel to Shades of Milk and Honey. 

In the tumultuous months after Napoleon abdicates his throne, Jane and Vincent go to Belgium 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, Jane and Vincent’s concerns turn from enjoying their honeymoon…to escaping it. Left with no outward salvation, Jane must persevere over her trying personal circumstances and use her glamour to set things right…and hopefully prevent her newly built marriage from getting stranded on the shoals of another country’s war.

Let me start off by saying how awesome Jane is in this novel, striding around the countryside in men’s clothes trying to rescue Vincent, and all the while thinking about how her legs are in full view of everyone. Oh, Jane. You’re such a dear.

Glamour in Glass has a lot more action and tension than did Shades of Milk and Honey, but it also expands even more on the subtle magic of the world and the political and social ramifications of that magic. It also has the expected marital angst with Jane, but it’s done very well and stems from what we already know of the character. It was pretty obvious what one of the plot twists would be, but even though I knew it would happen, it still was quite a tragic moment.

I also like how this book, and Shades of Milk and Honey, are at their heart stand-alone novels (Shades more so than Glamour, obviously). These books remind me more of a series of mystery novels, where the plots do not overlap but the characters do. I like that Kowal doesn’t hook you into the next book, and although she hints at future things to come like with the significance of the glass sphere, it’s not an obvious plot thread that is left hanging to be fulfilled later.

This book reminds me quite a lot of The Grand Tour, especially since they both deal with Napoleon and the succession. Given the time period both portray, that’s not surprising.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction

As they passed within the Sphère Obscurcie, [Mathieu] popped into view, frowning as he tried to understand the excitement apparent on their faces. Of course, being in the centre of the Sphère, he had no way of knowing that for a few moments, he had been invisible. Vincent explained as best he could, and then Jane took Mathieu by the arm to lead him out of the Sphère.

When she turned him to face whence they had come, the boy’s jaw dropped. He stood gaping like a fish.

Overall Review:

Glamour in Glass is a bit more tension-centric than was Shades of Milk and Honey, and although the Regency aspect is definitely still there, some of the Jane Austen charm has left. However, the book functions well without the Austen ties and my love for the characters and the world has only increased since Shades. Jane is so delightfully shocked at everything.

You can buy this here: Glamour in Glass

Shades Of Milk And Honey: Jane Austen Tribute

Shades of Milk and Honey is written by Mary Robinette Kowal. It was published in 2010 by Tor. 

Shades of Milk and Honey is an intimate portrait of Jane Ellsworth, a woman ahead of her time in a version of Regency England where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality. Despite the prevalence of magic in everyday life, other aspects of Dorchester’s society are not that different: Jane and her sister Melody’s lives still revolve around vying for the attentions of eligible men. Jane resists this fate, and rightly so, because while her skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face, and therefore wins the lion’s share of the attention. At the ripe old age of twenty-eight, Jane has resigned herself to being invisible forever. But when her family’s honor is threatened, she finds that she must push her skills to the limit in order to set things right—and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.

Someone recommended Shades of Milk and Honey to me after I commented how much I loved Patricia C. Wrede’s Sorcery & Cecelia. I’d heard of Mary Robinette Kowal before, but somehow never looked at one of her books before. And let me tell you…I absolutely LOVED this book.

This book is like the ultimate tribute to Jane Austen with a unique magical twist to it. Shades of Milk and Honey is equal parts Sense & Sensibility, Persuasion, and Pride & Prejudice with Kowal’s own unique spin. And it is awesome.

I don’t know why, but I found the part towards the end where Jane is riding around the countryside and telling people that she’s speaking metaphorically one of the funniest parts of the book. It’s supposed to be tense and dramatic and “Will she get to the carriage on time!?” but I don’t know, maybe it was the character interactions or something, but I found it hilarious.

If you’re a Jane Austen fan, or just like Regency novels in general, read this one, because it’s fantastic. Yes, Jane is a bit limp, at least at first, and the plot points are pretty obvious, but I really enjoyed it even so.

Rating: 5/5

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction

“Did you see him, Jane?”

“Who?” Jane said, as she drew Melody to the side of the floor, though she knew well who Melody meant.

“Captain Livingston! If there is a more handsome, graceful man, I know not where to find him. He is all that is courtesy. And wit! La! Such wit he has, and his tales of his work with the navy are fascinating. He has made a fortune for himself with his captures, and at so young an age.”

“I am certain you did not think so highly of him when he left a frog in your sewing kit.”

Overall Review:

Shades of Milk and Honey reminds me of Jane Austen, and it has a wonderful fantasy twist to it. It’s sweet, unique, and really funny in parts, and I smiled all the way through.

You can buy this here: Shades of Milk and Honey