Without a Summer – Mary Robinette Kowal
This third volume in M.R. Kowal’s Glamourist series pushes the envelope a little further than its predecessors – and with great success. The premise takes inspiration from a real event: the 1815 volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora (in present-day Indonesia) spread such a huge quantity of ash in the atmosphere that the spring and summer of 1816 were far colder than seasonal norm. Jane and Vincent’s England is a place of social turmoil, and the unusually cold temperatures give rise to a series of troublesome events that are used as cover for a plot in which the two find themselves enmeshed.
There are many interesting sub-threads in this story that keep raising the stakes and complicate matters in such a way that I felt compelled to reach the resolutions as quickly as possible. The appearance of Vincent’s family on the scene is indeed one of the main points of interest: every time they were mentioned in the past, there was an unpleasant aura attached to them, and here we are finally presented with the reality of Vincent’s relatives, and the reasons for his decision to cut himself off from them. The best description I can come up with for Vincent’s father is “sneaky bastard”, and his attempt at driving a wedge between his son and Jane, and the way he manages to rock the foundations of their marriage, speak more clearly about his character than any other detail. On the other hand, this mean stab at the couple’s stability helps to highlight the dynamics of their marriage, its constant need of balance and compromise, in a very actual – and believable – way.
Prejudice plays a huge part in this story: in an era in which the first social upheavals manifested themselves (there are several mentions of the Luddite movement), we see how the old establishment erects a willfully blind wall of defense against a world that is headed toward inescapable change. Preconceptions against the coldmongers (a branch of glamourists who, as the name says, can generate colder temperatures to preserve produce or create ice) drive the spreading worry for the unseasonable weather toward resentment against that guild and its members, accused of being at the core of the problem: there’s an interesting reflection here, about the ease with which humanity can be driven toward a scapegoat, a target for our fears and insecurities. The unknown terrifies us, and the simple fact of putting a face on it (no matter how wrong, as is the case here) seems to channel the worst of our impulses toward mob mentality: in the novel, if people had stopped to think that the colder temperatures worked against the coldmongers, robbing them of work, they would have perceived the sheer idiocy of such accusations. Even now, two hundred years past the events in this story, we are not so different from the people described in it, and are sometimes all too ready to listen to those who spout nonsense, only because they do it often and very loudly…
Even Jane is not immune from prejudice: MR Kowal makes an intriguing choice with her heroine in this novel, presenting her (despite her unquestionable good qualities) as a fallible person, prone to terrible mistakes in judgment – mistakes that affect both the story and her profile as a character. I think it was a bold move, on the author’s part, to show how Jane can be short-sighted and biased, how her good and generous nature could be misled by social preconceptions. Yet, in some way this failure makes her more likable: not so much because her mistakes are driven by the misguided desire to do good, but rather because they highlight her humanity. Her “sin” here is that of social and cultural prejudice: the discovery about the glamourist couple’s new employers being Irish, and the attentions paid to Jane’s sister Melody by the employers’ son, send the protagonist into a paroxysm of worry that in turn leads her to unwelcome and disastrous meddling. What’s more interesting is that Melody – presented until now as young, naive and easily fooled – is the one who shows more level-headedness and clarity of thought, not to mention a few instances of wisdom and witty self-analysis. It’s a kind of role-reversal that offers a few moments of amused reflection, a circumstance I enjoyed quite a bit.
The epilogue of the book brought home the reasons I like M.R. Kowal’s writing so much: there could be no doubt about the outcome, of course, but it was presented in such a way that I flew breathlessly thought the last chapters, both worried for the characters’ well-being and eager to see how things would work out. And that is the mark of a master storyteller. Well done, indeed…
My Rating 8/10