Glamour in Glass - Mary Robinette Kowal This is a quiet fantasy novel set in Regency England, or rather an alternative version of Regency England, where magic is an art form like watercolors or music. It’s the second book in a series but it reads well as a stand-alone novel, and I’ll treat it as such.
There are two interlocking stories running through the narrative: a love story and a magic story, with a whiff of a war thriller to spice things up.
Its magical system is definitely the most interesting aspect of this novel. Magic – original and subtle – affects every scene; it’s intrinsic to the society the writer has wrought, but the manifestations of Kowal’s magic are unique in the fantasy genre. The only thing the magicians in this world can do is create glamour – illusions that affect all senses: sight, hearing, smell, and occasionally temperature.
The protagonist Jane is a glamourist – a talented artist. While shy and awkward in society, she is sparkling when she designs her glamours. Working magic, weaving lovely mirages out of magical threads, fills her with joy. Unfortunately, for certain people magic, or rather its military applications, could be a coveted weapon. In this way, magic is in the heart of the major conflict of the plot.
Before even a hint of that conflict is revealed, Jane’s love story unfolds on the peaceful background of England and magic. A plain, unassuming young woman, Jane is unsure of herself in the day-to-day life. Newly-wed to her beloved Vincent, a famous glamourist whose art she admires, Jane adores her husband. Her love permeates the tale and influences all Jane’s decisions. Even when she doubts Vincent’s affections for her, which happens fairly often – modern psychologists would say Jane has a very low self-esteem – she never doubts her own love for him. And she fights for her love against the overwhelming odds of war and treachery.
The timing of the novel coincides with the end of Napoleonic wars. The Corsican is defeated and banished to Elba, life in England returns to normal, and to mark the new, risk-free Europe, Jane and her husband travel to the Continent for their honeymoon. Unexpectedly, Napoleon escapes from Elba, and troubles ensue. Only Jane’s courage and ingenuity, combined with her abilities as a glamourist and her unselfish love, allow her to save her husband’s life, simultaneously (and inadvertently) aiding the British army in the final battle against the French emperor.
Jane is a three-dimensional character, calm and rational one moment, weepy or overly suspicious the next, but always dedicated to her art – a real artist. Ready to sacrifice a lot for her art, she is not a common female image in the fantasy genre, which has lately been populated by different females: plucky, mouthy girls, waving swords and kicking in step with their men. Unlike them, Jane is a woman of her era and doesn’t pretend otherwise, even when she has to don a man’s costume to extricate her husband from the enemy clutches. Even then she doesn’t wield a weapon, relying instead on her wits and her magical gift.
There is an excess of secondary characters in the story; too many I’d say. Most of them are pretty sketchy, except for Jane’s husband, Vincent. Seen through Jane’s loving eyes, this famous glamourist is the epitome of a genius: arrogant, slightly asocial, focused on his art and his inner vision to the exclusion of anything and anyone else. Except his wife: he clearly cherishes her. Like Jane, Vincent is an unusual type for fantasy fiction: a talented artist.
They both are also patriots, caught in the military clash and plying their art to get out with their honor and their skin intact. The tension grows steadily, as Waterloo looms, but this particular story is low-key. It doesn’t include battles or magical feats. There are no fanfares there. Instead, the author concentrates on the artistic integrity of her heroes. What does it mean to be an artist, she asks? What are they ready to give up for their art?
A nice story, although it could’ve benefited from better editing.