Glamour in Glass, the follow up to Shades of Milk and Honey, skipped by almost too quickly for me. In Glamour, the second book in her Glamourist histories, a Regency era speculative fiction series in which glamour/magic is as real as any other art, Mary Robinette Kowal ups the stakes for her characters, glamourists Vincent and Jane; as if being newlyweds, working on new techniques and commissions, and being guilted by a mother/mother-in-law insistent on grandkids weren’t adventure enough.
Not for these two; no, they head from England to the Continent after the end of the war (one of Napoleon’s many wars) and his first exile, to Elba.
I must admit that when they were waylaid en route to Belgium mere months after the pistol wielding ‘highway’ showdown in the previous book, it felt a bit contrived (improbable, repetitive) for me – like, what are the odds, even given the dangerous times in which they live. But Kowal doesn’t stop there; that early adventure foreshadows the intrigues to come, as she goes all in, involving her hero and heroine pivotally in one of the most significant military and political intrigues in history, the ultimate defeat of Napoleon (at Not Waterloo). In the process, she crafts a convincing alternate reality of that time.
Vincent and Jane’s reason for being on the Continent (which is how the Brits refer to the rest of Europe in the book) is a working honeymoon of sorts. They board with an old associate of Vincent’s and, at first, it seems that issues of society – how French and English society differ from each other, for instance, and Vincent and Jane’s experiments (specifically capturing glamour in glass per the title) – will be the novel’s focus. The pace at this point is a bit languid though never dull.
But about mid-way through, it takes a turn towards a dangerous adventure in which Jane, ever proactive, finds herself once again the hero, at great personal cost.
I will say this, as well, one of the interesting things this book does while staying true to its time (1815) is giving us a view of the inner struggles of a woman who might want more than society prescribes for her, how she struggles to reconcile her own desires with that role (especially given that, a product of her time, she can be quite traditional in her way, making for inner contradiction). This tension plays out in Jane’s marriage to Vincent, but also in their interactions in larger society. I would say it’s the main sub-plot (after the dangerous intrigues) – from the earliest scenes when Jane wrestles with feelings of jealousy and inadequacy in relation to work which she and Vincent created together though he gets the lion’s share of the credit. Also, him doing additional work on the glamural without consulting her stirs discontent in their marriage. All is soothed over quickly but it effectively sets up some of the tensions that play out later in the book and will likely play out in their marriage going forward.
Also, as there is significant world building here, this entry in the series comes with an extensive vocabulary and afterword, history buffs will appreciate the author’s efforts to get the time right, right down to rooting out anachronisms (and inputting old English words like ‘nuncheon’). And the historical changes that are made, such as the site of Napoleon’s last battle are deliberate, and help keep the reader on his/her toes.
All told, a good read, if a bit slow in the beginning.