Review: VALOUR AND VANITY – Mary Robinette Kowal
There are books that are just perfect when you are in need of some respite – either from too-dark stories or from the annoyances that real life sometimes places in front of you: this kind of book takes you elsewhere in an effortless way because you are so familiar with the setting and the characters that you feel as if you were enjoying a relaxing chat with old friends. The Glamourist Series by M.R. Kowal is indeed this kind of story, and as a bonus it keeps improving with each new book.
The plot in itself is a fascinating and entertaining one: Jane and Vincent travel to Venice to connect with Murano’s glass-blowers in order to perfect their technique of trapping glamour in glass. On their way to the city their ship is boarded by pirates though, and the two – after a few other misadventures – find themselves penniless and cut off from any ties with family and friends. As if this were not enough they are caught in a convoluted web of spies and swindlers and have to battle both with their destitute state and the consequences of their craft being put to evil use.
Such a story-line is more than riveting, of course, but what makes the book extraordinary are the characters, and the way their growth – both as individuals and as a married couple – is shown in an organic and very believable way. There is a sizable romance component in Ms. Kowal’s stories, and it’s a necessary part of their structure since it’s based on an alternate version of the Regency era, but it’s never the foundation of these books, or the reason for the characters’ existence: what carries the story here is the way these people evolve – and there is nothing more effective, for that evolution, than putting them through the proverbial grinder.
When Jane and Vincent met in Book 1, their interactions went more along the expected lines of genre stories as one would find, for example, in Jane Austen’s work, while in Books 2 and 3 a few elements of darkness and grief were introduced, so that the danger of drowning the protagonists in saccharine-laden marital bliss was successfully averted. Still, I found that Jane’s character appeared a little submissive – even for the times’ standards – and far too self-effacing for my tastes, and even though this element further faded as the story-line progressed, I kept hoping for a more assertive stance on her part. Well, I can happily say that my wish was granted in Valour and Vanity, even though the character maintained her defining qualities.
In this novel Ms. Kowal managed to blend in a seamless whole both modern considerations and the era’s social viewpoints: for example, Jane is able to find some steady work, while Vincent can barely manage as a street performer, thus presenting the reader with a situation we can find in our present days – that of a man unable to support his family, while his wife is the one bringing the bread home, literally. It goes without saying that this state of things builds conflict in the relationship and leads to a heated quarrel that exposes all the raw nerves Jane and Vincent have tried to ignore so far. The whole scene has a very realistic feeling and makes you feel deep sympathy for both of them, while understanding that they need to let it all out to be able to go on and overcome their troubles. These are not perfect characters, and stress brings individual flaws to the surface, but it’s exactly this show of humanity that further endeared them to me, not in spite of their insecurities, but because of them.
What emerges from this difficult moment is not only a reinforcing of Jane and Vincent’s bond but, more important, the acknowledgement (especially from Jane) of the equal footing they share in the marriage: from this point on both of them will know how to lean on the other for support – without shame or loss of self image – because they have reached a true partnership. This is also what allows them the luxury of expanding on the subject of children and how parenting duties might interfere in their work as glamourists. It’s a very modern discussion in the themes it touches, and yet it’s carried on through the medium of the historical period’s worldviews and sensibilities: the author manages this in a flawless way, at the same time keeping her characters true to themselves.
The cast of supporting players is just as variegated and interesting: from a group of organized swindlers that could stand up to the guys from “The Sting” or “Ocean’s Eleven” to the moody and secretive Murano glass-blowers or the group of enterprising nuns with a flair for adventure, the secondary characters breathe further life in the story and help relieve the brooding sadness that hangs over Jane and Vincent, and of course Venice and Murano add their own background magic to the mix. There’s even a cameo from Lord Byron himself, dashing in and out of the scene trailing impromptu verses in his wake…
As much as these books have been delightful reads, this fourth volume stands several notches above its predecessors and bodes very well for the continuation of the series. Which makes me quite happy.
My Rating: 8/10
(On a more personal note, I will be “off the grid” for a few days: if I don’t reply to your comments, please be patient, because I intend to do so on my return. Thank you!)