Review: The Glamourist Histories by Mary Robinette Kowal

I’ve made no secret of my addiction to affection for Jane Austen’s novels. While I love to get swept away in grand stories that hold the fate of the world (or at least a few nations) in the balance, I also love smaller stories in which the stakes are nothing more — or less — than the hearts and happiness of two good people who deserve one another. So when someone recommended Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey by saying “it’s like Jane Austen with magic,” I sprinted to the computer to put myself on the library’s waiting list.

Since then I have read all three of Kowal’s Glamourist Histories (the fourth, Valour and Vanity, will be released next month). Kowal has reimagined Regency England with one small addition: glamour, a version of what we would call magic. In Kowal’s world, magic is not a world-changing force that can sever dimensions or explode important military compounds. Instead, glamour is mostly limited to illusions and its pursuit is considered an art form. Young ladies of marriageable age are encouraged to master glamour as one of the “accomplishments” that might snare them a husband — but, of course, the most famous professional glamourists in the nation are men.

Shades of Milk and Honey, the first of the Glamourist Histories, lived up to my hopes for an Austen-esque fantasy novel. The heroine, Jane Ellsworth, is a homely and shy woman who often finds herself in the shadow of her pretty younger sister Melody. Although Jane has tremendous talents for the womanly arts, particularly glamour, at twenty-eight it seems unlikely that she will ever marry.

As the novel begins, the Ellsworths welcome a handful of new neighbors, including the dashing Captain Livingston and Mr. Vincent, a surly but talented glamourist who quickly recognizes Jane’s ability and seems to resent her for it. Meanwhile, Jane quietly carries a torch for her kindly neighbor Mr. Dunkirk, although he seems more drawn to her sister.

What follows is a very Austenesque story of mistaken first impressions, wars between heads and hearts, and other conflicts that arise in a world where women have few economic opportunities outside of marriage. I enjoyed it thoroughly, but had two complaints. First, the crisis at the end of the novel lacks tension and seems disjointed from the quiet story that precedes it. Second, Jane’s romantic fate is more or less settled by authorial fiat. We see little of the couple falling in love and so the proposal at the end feels abrupt and slightly unsatisfying. (Less Pride and Prejudice, more Mansfield Park.)

The second book, Glamour in Glass, didn’t quite live up to Shades of Milk and Honey for me. I found the early chapters of the novel, in which Jane and her husband travel to Europe on their honeymoon, slow-moving and not very compelling. Glamour in Glass had a tense, terrific ending, but I had to fight to reach those final chapters.

Fortunately the third book, Without a Summer, more than resurrected my interest in the series. Kowal seems to be reaching to Georgette Heyer rather than to Austen for inspiration in this installment, in which Jane and her husband travel to London and take a younger relative in order to chaperone her Season in the British capital. However, Kowal leavens the frivolity of a London Season by incorporating radical political movements, including the historical Luddite movement and a fictional anti-glamour movement, into her plot.

So if “Jane Austen with magic” sounds like a book you’d enjoy, Shades of Milk and Honey should go to the top of your to-read list. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t love Glamour in Glass — I can recommend Without a Summer unreservedly. Also, I highly encourage you to read these books while sipping a cup of black tea and eating scones. Just because.

Series Rating: Library Loan (it gets a downgrade from “Buy It” because of Glamour in Glass)

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2 comments on “Review: The Glamourist Histories by Mary Robinette Kowal

  1. Is it written in Regency-style language? (I get tired of people trying to write in Jane Austen’s style, mostly because no one does it as well as she does, and no one writes like that anymore. And because I’m a crank, let’s not forget that.) Sounds intriguing.

    • Yikes, how did I miss this? Sorry!

      I would say it’s Jane Austen-esque, but it’s not an attempt to copy Jane Austen. You buy the characters as real Regency people without feeling alienated by the language, if that makes sense.

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