Friday, April 6, 2012

G is for Glamour in Glass

Today I have another book review for you, of Glamour in Glass Mary Robinette Kowal's sequel to World Fantasy Award winner Shades of Milk and Honey.
For those who've forgotten, Shades of Milk and Honey is, in brief, a regency romance with a touch of magic. The fantastical element lies mainly in the creation of glamours - illusions and other effects formed by a kind of psychic manipulation of the aether (which, in this world, appears to be a real thing). There were multiple suitors, misunderstandings, love-triangles, secret pasts, and a beautifuly written relationship between the sharp, independent Jane and her more beautiful but less wordly younger sister, Melody. They were sometimes competitive, sometimes dismissive of eachother, sometimes jealous, sometimes supportive, and sometimes just don't quite understand eachother. Shades of Milk and Honey also introduced Vincent, a sometimes troubled, sometimes moody but brilliant glamourist with both an artistic eye and a drive towards technical innovation.  It is a romance, and by the novel's end Jane and Vincent are wed.
Glamour in Glass begins not far from where Shades of Milk and Honey ended - with the Vincents newly married, much in demand for their artistic talents (they aren't merely glamourists, but some of the world's best glamourists). There's a lovely moment when, after feeling slighted by her husband's not including her in some element of their work, Jane immediately confronts him and tells him her feelings. It's a sign that Kowal knows how to let her characters act like real, reasonable people and that any misunderstandings won't come from people not telling eachother things  just so the author can create tension. It also tells us that we're reading about smart, reasonable people.

Tensions do come (it wouldn't be much of a book without them, now would it?) during the trip Vincent and a newly-pregnant Jane take to the continent to visit Vincent's old mentor. Napolean has just escaped from Elba to begin his ill-fated attempt to reclaim his empire, leaving a populace divided between those loyal to the current regime and those who long for Napolean's return. Add a mysterious long-term assignment for Vincent, Jane's inability to travel because of her delicate condition, and we get a feeling of real trouble.

Another thread winding through this part of the novel are the couple's attempt to record a glamour using the glass prisms suggested by the title. The experimentation was a fascinating picture of bright, talented people struggling at the edges  of a new and poorly understood science. There were setbacks, but ultimately triumphs. 

And, of course, it wouldn't fit into the period without some intrigue. Without giving too much away, know that there are hidden agendas, conflicting loyalties, and an actual surprise or two.

All of the narrative threads - the secret goals, the experiments in glamour, and the looming war - come together for a dramatic climax in which a victory is won, but at a steep cost. I'll not spoil it here, but that cost - and the characters' different reactions to it - were beautifully written and felt quite real.
I'll close with a word about language in this book; Kowal took the effort to painstakingly cross-reference all of the words she used here with actual works written in the nineteenth century so, even more so than with Shades of Milk and Honey, this book is of its time. This effort gives the book a wonderful feel of authenticity.
Highly recommended. Four stars.

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