Friday, May 4, 2018

Mount Toberead 11 - The Glamourist Histories by Mary Robinette Kowal

I kind of cheated with these. They were on my Toberead pile, but my wife had read them all and adored them. It was largely due to her urging that I put them in this challenge. I did always want to be read them, it was a matter of getting the right time and I decided to shot gun them all.

Prior to the publication of Shades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal was better known as a science fiction author, with some of her work having been nominated for the Hugo and Nebula awards, Shades of Milk and Honey was also her first full length novel.

Shades of Milk and Honey is very much a Jane Austen influenced story. At times it feels like reading Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, but with magic in the form of glamour. In that it's another entry in the recent (20 or so years) subgenre of Regency romance influenced fantasy. Susannah Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Caroline Stevermer and Patricia C. Wrede's Cecelia and Kate series and Emma Newman's Split Worlds all fit into that category in some ways. I don't think the author originally envisioned a series, because the first book is very much standalone, although she gave herself room for growth, particularly in the relationship between her Mr Darcyesque male lead Mr Vincent and her protagonist Jane.

With Glamour in Glass it became more apparent that the whole idea had legs. This is when the themes in the books started. It was very much a 'war' or even 'spies' book. Showing that glamour had practical military applications put me in mind of similar uses in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The science fiction author in Mary Robinette Kowal came to the fore as she delved deeper into how and why glamour worked. It's interesting to see authors explain how magic works. I've seen people say that Brandon Sanderson has some of the best thought out and explained magic systems. He doesn't hold a candle to what Kowal did with glamour in these books.

Without a Summer used a historical fact that is only just being better known about in recent times as its backdrop. That was 1816 the year that the eruption of Mt Tambora played havoc with world weather patterns and effectively meant that the northern hemisphere didn't really get a summer. The book was a legal drama and I think of the 5 it was my favourite. The courtroom battle and the machinations of Vincent's horrible aristocratic family kept me reading until late into the night and early into the morning.

Then came Valour and Vanity, which was the caper/heist novel. This was a heap of fun, we had characters like Vincent's friend Lord Byron playing a significant part. There was a puppeteer character who had to be based on Mary Robinette Kowal herself, who is a puppeteer. And the whole thing was set in Venice. Most of the action took place on Murano, though.

By the time Of Noble Family came out it was apparent that there had to be a reckoning between Vincent and his father. The book was easily the biggest of the whole series and it had a family saga feel to it. It was also set in the West Indies, which gave it a very exotic feel and is not a place that many fantasies are actually set. Adventure novels, yes, but not fantasy, unless it's a secondary world that has a Caribbean feel to it.

Overall the entire series was a great read. The characters were solid and the magic had a real feel to it, because of the care and detail the author took and found fit to include. They were well paced and easy to read, they contained fun and drama in the correct amounts. I was a little sad when I finished Of Noble Family, but at the same time I felt that the series and the characters had come to a satisfying conclusion. There is room to write more in the world, but I would prefer that it be left where it was and not go to the well too often.