Glamouring the past – Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamour in Glass

Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamour in Glass follows on the heels of The Shades of Milk and Honey. It joyously extends its horizons into Belgium and the watershed of renewed war as Bonaparte comes back from his exile in Elba.

The newly married Jane and Vincent go across to visit Vincent’s friend , M Chastain, himself another glamourist, and stays with his family.

The fantasy of manners, of which these books are a wonderful addition, explore the conflicts within the social mores and levels. It is a more delicate approach to exploring the world that is sometimes ignored. Robinette Kowal explores the role of women in the fantastic whilst using a historical perspective which gives it a strange strength. The novel goes into the vagaries of language, dialect and their perception as a new field of conflict which takes apart the implicit understanding that languages are similar and that dialect and accent are irrelevant. When Jane talks to Anne-Marie, the maid, she begins to understand the nuances that exist and how they affect perception. Although she is understood, her position in the house might be affected.

This is a more potent field of combat than the war going on around them. Robinette Kowals’ Austenesque cue has been taken and has been extended though keeping within historical fact. Her afterword makes mention of some inaccuracies but these are not particularly noticeable for the casual reader.

In the first novel, Robinette Kowal explored the role of women in being creative and what is defined as women’s work. Glamour in Glass takes this further and sees Jane contribute to Vincent’s explorations into building the glamours in glass which takes the magic into some wonderful areas. Although Jane contributes in significant ways to the implementation, she is largely cut out of the story.

Eventually she finds that Vincent has been involved in secret affairs. The glamour that he is involved in has constant changes made to it and, periodically, he writes secret letters. Feeling sleighted, she confides in Anne-Marie who is a secret Bonapartist and perhaps a dupe in her own right. Although Anne-Marie understands the internal conflict, she is outmatched in the war. Vincent uses the opportunity to reveal some of his own past but also learns about his mission for the Prince Regent. Realising that she is pregnant, she is sidelined from the main action by her husband. Robinette uses this to explore the relationships between magic and pregnancy, something which is often ignored, leading to Jane paying a high price. Being in her ‘situation’ means that she is kept coddled and not allowed to contribute. Magic is also analogous to physics which allows Jane to make her own breakthroughs. It obeys its own rules, drawing from Newtonian observations in optics.

These novels critique fantasy but do so with their own focus on the human aspects of world building. Focussing on the more intricate aspects of social aspects, Glamour in Glass is a rich but deceptively simple read.

Earlier post on Shades of Milk and Honey

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