In Without a Summer, the third (and final?) installment of her Glamourist Histories, Mary Robinette Kowal continues the story of her magical alternate Victorian England while reminding us why we read about this time period in the first place. For those new to Kowal's work, the series began with Shades of Milk and Honey, a Jane Austen-inspired regency romance with the added fantasy element of glamour - the ability of certain naturally gifted individuals to create semi-permanent illusions and otherwise effect the electromagnetic spectrum through direct manipulation of the aether.
The previous volume, Glamour in Glass, left protagonist Jane Vincent literally bloodied and bruised after her part in the war effort but otherwise near the apex of personal and professional success with a marriage to a thoughtful and intelligent man and a great measure of success and fame as a glamourist. The one loose end, dangling since the end of the first book, is the continued lack of marriage prospects for Jane's prettier but otherwise less talented younger sister, Melody. So, when presented with a fortuitously-timed commission, Jane and family head to London thankfully leaving her mother behind. This is thankful to the reader as well as to the characters; the mother was a little bit of a one-note melodramatic hypochondriac whose appearances began to feel a touch tiresome in contrast with the other more complex and richly drawn characters.
In London, the weather proves to be a major topic of discussion and running theme through the book; as the title suggests, the action takes place in the year without a summer, a historic cold spell likely caused by a major volcanic eruption. We're still in the early stage of the industrial revolution and Luddites are smashing looms in the streets while London's coldmongers (glamourists who work with heat and cold rather than light) are scapegoated for the unseasonable cold. Weaving these details of social and economic disruption throughout the novel is one element that makes the Glamourist Histories stand out from many Victorian fantasy novels; the time period is interesting because we stood with one set of economic and social realities behind us, a different set before us, and no clear path to navigate the change. The coldmongers of this alternate London are often young, made sickly by the nature of their work, underpaid, and unappreciated. Yes, it's a fantasy element, but they are as real as coal miners and garment workers of yesteryear and the underage employees of some electronics factories even today. At a time when a new layer of technology is again disrupting the economic and social order this feels very relevant.
Without a Summer also deals with rising religious plurality in England, and Kowal pulls no punches in showing us how even the most sympathetic characters can be driven by ignorance and, yes, bigotry. After hearing about them for the past two books, we meet Vincent's family. And, about two-thirds of the way through, we get one of the most delightful kinds of moments in fiction: a revelation that a fundamental assumption we'd made turns out to have been wrong, and we're forced to look at past events and a wel-established character in a new light.
It ends on a positive note, with the door cracked open just enough that I'd suspect another sequel is possible, but well-enough wrapped up to walk away satisfied should Kowal choose to wander someplace else next. If you'd not read the Glamourist Histories as of yet, do so!
Very highly recommended. Four stars.