Mary Robinette Kowal – Glamour in Glass

Why did I read this? I had mostly lukewarm feelings about Shades of Milk and Honey, the first part in this series. But Mary Robinette Kowal is so likable and seems so clever in her interviews and podcasts that I wanted to give her a second chance. If the first novel was – and such a thing is possible, I’ve learned – too much like Jane Austen and read like all the characters were ripped off, this one has its own voice and mood to it. Unfortunately, it was a mood that bored me almost to death.

glamour in glassGLAMOUR IN GLASS
by Mary Robinette Kowal

Published by: Tor, 2012
ISBN: 1429987286
ebook: 213 pages
Series: Glamourist Histories #2

My rating: 6/10

First sentence: There are few things in this world that can simultaneously delight and dismay in the same manner as a formal dinner party.

Mary Robinette Kowal stunned readers with her charming first novel Shades of Milk and Honey, a loving tribute to the works of Jane Austen 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 debuted to great acclaim and left readers eagerly awaiting its sequel. Glamour in Glass continues following the lives of beloved main characters Jane and Vincent, with a much deeper vein of drama and intrigue.
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 rescue her husband from prison . . . and hopefully prevent her newly built marriage from getting stranded on the shoals of another country’s war.

dividerAfter Shades of Milk and Honey, I was hoping for many things to happen in the second novel. I wished Mary Robinette Kowal would be a little less like Jane Austen (who but Jane Austen can really pull it off, after all?) and more like herself. Check. I was hoping that the characters weren’t such obvious copies or amalgamations of Austen’s own Elizabeth Bennet or the Dashwood sisters. Check. I was hoping that her magic system, Glamour, would be further developed. Check.
Despite all of these good things that were delivered as per my personal order (or so it seems), there was one element this book was missing. Badly. It was drive, it was that thing that makes you go “wow” and get really immersed in a story. Frequently, the five-year-old that I secretly still am on the inside, wanted to shout out “This is BOOOORING” while I was reading. I shushed her and everything, pointed out the nice writing and the depth of research that must have gone into the novel. But five-year-old me didn’t care. She wanted a good story. And that’s where Glamour in Glass was truly lacking.

glamour in glassIt opens on a dinner scene where Jane, who, with Vincent, has just finished a magnificent glamural commissioned by the Prince Regent, describes the dinner conversations, all the rules of propriety that go with such and the separation of the sexes once the whisky and cigars are brought and the discussions start going in a political direction. This may be very interesting from a historical point of view but it lacks any wit that Jane Austen always provided in her work. And the plot (if you can call it that) meanders along in the same manner until the last quarter of the book, when finally something happens that requires action. I am by no means averse to slow-moving books that focus on characters. But let’s take a look at the characters we meet here.

Jane, for the most part, is incredibly sulky and passive throughout the novel. Until said event in the last bit makes her come out of her shell and become pretty awesome. I liked her a great deal in Shades of Milk and Honey, but here I found myself not caring very much about her and actually being annoyed with her a lot of the time. Vincent has lost his brooding mystery and what little we see of him didn’t excite me either. This may be entirely my fault or it may be due to the inconsequential conversations the newlyweds have. I don’t know. It just didn’t grab my attention at all.

What Mary Robinette Kowal does brilliantly is paint a picture of the era. I’m no expert, not even an amateur, in the field, but everything just feels right. The way people behave, the differences between England and France and Belgium, the clothing, the carriages and horse-drawn carts… simply guessing from what I’ve read in her two Glamourist Histories, I would say, Mary has a firm grip on her research. The afterword gives us a clue of how thorough she has been, creating a list of words with all the words Jane Austen used in her works, and eliminating or rephrasing any words Mary used to fit the vocubulary of 1815.

I was also very happy to learn more about Glamour and see Jane come up with new ways to use it. It is like reading steampunk – you read about inventions that could have been made in the past. Only this is glamourpunk. The scenes where Jane and Vincent work on their theory and try to put it into practice were the first ones that got me really hooked and that offer a myriad possibilities for future novels in the series.

What did I think? In the end, the story left me rather cold. The fact that I didn’t particularly like Jane or Vincent for most of the book is surely a large factor in this. The lack of a driving force behind the plot made this, to say it in my five-year-old self’s words, simply boring. I need something to want to read on, be it characters, action, magic or world-building. None of these things were interesting enough to hold my interest. I am somewhat surprised to see this on the Nebula shortlist and I have the strong suspicion that, like with the Hugos, sometimes authors just make it onto that list because they are very present. Or because “it’s kind of their time to get an award”. Mary is a great writer, no doubt, and has a firm grip on her research and craft. But for this second Glamourist History the elevator pitch “Jane Austen with magic” does not work anymore. There may be magic in the shape of Glamour, but there is none of Austen’s wit or clever critique, there are none of her ridiculously funny characters. And so, for me, there wasn’t really much magic at all.

The Good: Well-researched, with perfect French (that made me squee a lot) and an ending that redeems some of the earlier problems I had.

The Bad: Three quarters of the story were painfully boring, except for one scene involving Glamour. Lacks the Austenesque humor and fun characters.

The Verdict: Slow burning historical piece with threads of magic woven into it.

My Rating: 6/10 – Okay

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The Glamourist Histories:

6 thoughts on “Mary Robinette Kowal – Glamour in Glass

    • Nadine says:

      Yeah, that sums it up pretty neatly. I adore Mary as a public figure. She gives fantastic writing advice and seems like a genuinely wonderful person. But her writing doesn’t click with me and that makes me kind of sad. She’s so nice I wish I could have added one more raving review (not that she doesn’t get enough of those).

      The coolest thing she has ever done was probably the phone sex voice reading of classics for the Jay Lake fundraiser. Google it, it’s hilarious!

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  1. Carl V. Anderson says:

    I just skimmed the later part of the review as I am currently reading the novel to my wife and we are only about a quarter of the way through. I can certainly understand your reaction to Shades even if it was not similar to my own. The whole time I was reading it I could see how this is a book that I would have to pass on recommending to some of my friends as they just would not appreciate it. I didn’t mind that it was so very much a close homage to Austen simply because that is what she set out to do and I judged it based on her success at achieving that goal. I’m very curious as to how things will now play out as she takes the story away from that inspiration to some degree.

    Like you I think Mary is fascinating in her podcasts and the things I’ve read of hers (other than stories). She is becoming, or perhaps already is, an engaging voice in the SFF community and I’m happy for it as she is very knowledgeable and interesting.

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  2. Lynn says:

    I’m planning on Picking up Shades after reading Carl’s review – I have read all of Austen’s work and enjoy them all. It is difficult to imitate another writer – especially one from a different period where the language and words have changed considerably and what came naturally to the original author has to be worked at in the newer book but I’m interested in giving this a shot. I thought I’d do a double – I’m planning on picking up this one and also the Pride and Prejudice Zombie book. Thought I’d do a comparison of them.
    Lynn 😀

    Like

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