books

Mary Robinette Kowal

Books

Glamourist Histories: Shades of Milk and Honey (2010), Glamour in Glass (2012), Without a Summer (2013), Valour and Vanity (2014)

The Escapement of Blackledge (2016)

Anthologies: The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination: Original Short Fiction for the Modern Evil Genius (2013)

 

Shades of Milk and Honey (2010)

milkhoneyOddly, Shades of Milk and Honey is in some ways a parallel to Under Heaven, only set in an alternate England instead of an alternate China.

I also wish I had not read this immediately following Under Heaven–I should have read a thriller or a detective story or a hack and slash fantasy or anything, really, other than another alternate historical fantasy. Because it is very very difficult to judge Shades of Milk and Honey on its own merits, with Under Heaven so fresh in my mind.

Jane is an old maid; plain and yet skilled in the gentle arts of painting and piano and a natural talent at glamour–the ability to shape images to cover what is real until the image becomes part of what is real.

The story is an old fashioned romance, but with subtle magic thrown in, and I loved how the existence of magic seemed to fit so flawlessly into the world of Regency England.

And yet…

I loved the originality and I loved the setting and I would pick up another book by Kowel in a heart beat, and yet the story wasn’t everything I could have wished. Good–very good–but not great. As I said, I most likely would have appreciated it more had I read it following something completely different.
Rating: 7.5/10

Re-Read: November 2016

Set in Alternate Regency England ~1814.

The first time I read this, it was immediately following a Guy Gavriel Kay book, and so this story suffered in comparison. Nothing against Mary Robinette Kowal, it’s just that Guy Gavriel Kay is that good.

So searching for something to read, I decided to give it another try, and was glad I did.

Magic, or Glamour, exists but is frequently the purview of Ladies, seen as one of the arts acceptable to them, like painting and music. And a skilled Glamourist would be expected to combine glamour and music.

But Glamour is also used to “enhance” the home, creating amazing scenes in ballrooms for the delight of visitors.

Jane is quite on the shelf. She may be accomplished in music and painting and glamour, but she is quite plain looking, and so has resigned herself to being a spinster. Jane’s sister Melody, however, is beautiful and impetuous, and somehow the two manage to be jealous of each other.

I have often thought that the juxtaposition of the perfect with the flawed is the only thing which allows us to appreciate perfection.”

Although I didn’t like the magic quite as well as I did in Magic and Manners, it was an enjoyable story, and I’m glad I re-read it.
Rating: 7.5/10

Published by Tor

Glamour in Glass (2012)

glamour-in-glassSet in alternate Regency England in 1815.

Following their marriage, Jane and Vincent have come to the attention of the Prince Regent, and commissioned to create a Glamour for his ballroom, which makes them even more popular, so it is a surprise when they leave for the Continent (finally open again to the English, following the defeat of Napoleon).

But Vincent has a good friend who has created a new technique that he wants to learn, and so travel they do.

They are also interested in trying to create new techniques, such as capturing Glamour in an object–the Glamour in Glass of the title.

Vincent is far more likable in this book, which is good since he and Jane are married, but he is still contrary and can be frustrating. But they are well on their way to creating a strong marriage.

Vincent helped her to her feet with gentle solicitude. “Let me tend you as you tended me.”

Jane laughed, but willingly leaned on him as he helped her back to bed. “If by that you mean that you will visit me but once and insult me while you are here, I think I might suggest a better course.”

Now that Jane is married, she is expected–despite her partnership with Vincent–expected to become a mother, an idea of which she is unsure.

Her bond with her mother had been strained by the fact that Jane could not trust her as a source of comfort. She loved her mother, yes, but she had little respect for her beyond what was due by filial duty.

Although I have spent an obscene amount of time creating a spreadsheet that charts the various monarchies of Europe (and Russia, and the Papacy), I now decided I need to add in Northern Europe.

William of Orange’s coronation as the monarch of the newly formed United Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Luckily, I have managed to hold off so far, but there is grave danger.

What I particularly liked about this story was how Vincent and Jane came to terms with their marriage and relationship, and Jane’s fear of motherhood.

I also like seeing the twists on history and how glamour influenced things.
Rating: 8/10

Published by Tor

Without a Summer (2013)

without-a-summerSet in Alternate Regency England in 1816, during the Year without a Summer.

The third Glamourist History finds Jane and Vincent back in London, with a new commission and with Melody as a visitor, in the hopes she’ll find a husband.

There were some interesting bits about Glamour here, such as its effect on light and perception.

Too often amateur glamourists would try to flood an area with the illusion of light, not understanding that it would make the space seem darker by contrast, as the eye and the mind disagreed on what they saw.

But I was very surprised to discover that Jane and Vincent were not following up upon their discoveries in the previous book, of the ability to put Glamour into glass. Considering that Vincent is on speaking terms with both Wellington and the Prince Regent, I can’t believe there was no mention of further efforts to place glamour into an object.

What I liked best about this story was the changing relationship of Jane and Melody.

Jane bit her lip and straightened the folds of her gown. “I also wanted to apologise to you. I should have trusted you and did not. I am— I am not even certain where to begin with apologies. My offences seem endless.”

If Jane had hoped that Melody would stop her with a protest, that hope was sadly dashed.

As well they should have been.

I’ll note I was amused and delighted by a name check in this book. Jane is given a book to read, The Sleeping Partner, by Mrs. Robins, which is a real book that I have read and enjoyed.

I was surprised and pleased by the drama that happened towards the end of the book, and even more pleased by the outcome.

But I really was bothered by the lack of work on putting glamour into inanimate objects.
Rating: 8/10

Published by Tor

Valour and Vanity (2014)

valour-and-vanitySet in Alternate Regency Venice in 1817.

After traveling with Melody, her new husband, and Jane’s parent’s for part of their wedding Tour…

“You must not go!” Mrs. Ellsworth came to a stop in front of them with a hand pressed to her bosom. “Charles, tell them they must not.”

Jane’s father cleared his throat. His thinning white hair fluttered under his hat and, in the morning light, seemed almost like mist. “My dear. Your mother wishes me to tell you that you must not go.”

…Jane and Vincent are heading to Venice to see if they can find a glassblower to assist them in capturing glamour in glass.

At first, I was delighted by this, because I felt that just dropping the glamour in glass story arc as both ridiculous and unrealistic. Especially as Vincent had the ear of both the Prince Regent and Wellington, if he needed them.

Then, the book shifted into a pastiche of “The Italian Job” I got irritated. Irritated not because I dislike mysteries and thrillers, but because so many of the mystery and thriller bits were illogical.

They also meet up with Lord Byron, whom Vincent went to school with, and whose reputation hasn’t quite reached the levels it would later.

Vincent drew back into the cabin and whispered, “When he gets out of the water, do not stare at his feet. The right is a club, and he loathes having attention drawn to it.”

Do not stare at his feet? The man was without clothing. Jane had no intention of watching him at all when he emerged from the canal.

Though he’s working to earn that later reputation.

But mostly I was very annoyed by the “heist book”, from the ground up. That Vincent would not have seen the importance of capturing glamour in glass–especially the way it was used in the second book–and would have put off researching and and wouldn’t have bothered to share his ideas with anyone else.

“(P)erhaps this is a technique that only one glamourist has ever known, and it is lost to history.”

And that someone would have gone to all the effort they did for a passing note in a letter that the Vincents would be going to Venice to visit. Nope. The logic just didn’t hang together.
Rating: 5/10

Published by Tor

 

The Escapement of Blackledge (2016)

the-escapement-of-blackledgeSet in alternate Regency London

The Duke of Blackledge does NOT want to attend his coming-of-age birthday party, however, his mother is insistent. But there is only so much he can take, so he escapes to his laboratory where he works on his automatons, only to find an unexpected surprise.

Helena Troyes is trying to get back her inheritance and her name, but in the meantime, has been working as an acrobat and living with her adopted mother and father.

This story is set in the same world as Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourists series, but was written and published as an elaborate April Fool’s day joke, which I think it just lovely.

This is a boinking book, so if you’re interested in sampling her writing, this isn’t necessarily the best example, even though it is delightful.
Rating: 7.5/10

Published by the author

Anthologies

 

The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination: Original Short Fiction for the Modern Evil Genius (2013) edited by John Joseph Adamsmad-scientists-guide-to-world-domination

This is the third anthology I’ve read by John Joseph Adams, and I must say that he has a good rack record for creating anthologies with stories I really like. He also has a good mix of stories, some of which I am guaranteed not to like, but that’s okay, because it’s good to read stuff I don’t normally read, and if I really don’t like a story, I can always skip on to the next (even though I rarely do that).

The stories I liked best in this anthology were the straight-up cackling Evil Overlord sort (you know that list, right?), because they were funny. The ones I liked least tended to be the more serious ones, because, well, evil in its true form exists in the world, and it’s generally funny at all.

...

Mary Robinette Kowal‘s story “We Interrupt This Broadcast” is set right after WWII, in an alternate history where Dewey DID defeat Truman. I didn’t find the end particularly surprising, but I liked it just the same.

...

Aside from the anthology ending on several depressing notes, this was all-in-all a varied and very good collection of stories, with something for everyone. After all, the stories I disliked were not bad, they were just not my type of story.
Rating: 8/10

Published by Tor Books