Glamour and swindle in Venice

Valour and Vanity - Mary Robinette Kowal

Big publishers (like Tor, who published this book) have an annoying custom to let their marketing departments dictate their titles. Sometimes it works, but other times, it doesn’t. It didn’t work for this novel. The title the marketers came up with – Valour and Vanity – is too generic, while the novel is not generic at all. Its distinct writer’s voice, original magical system, and unique protagonists can’t be mistaken or even compared to any other in the fantasy genre.
A fast and enjoyable read, this book takes place in Venice and on Murano Island a few years after the Napoleonic war. The undertones of Jane Austen and Regency romance, the author’s original inspirations, are unmistakable, but coupled with a peculiar fantasy twist and the allure of mystery, this story boasts its own quaint charm.
A married couple in love, the protagonists Jane and Vincent are both artists, using the magic of their world – glamour – to adorn palaces and entertain the rich. Like any popular artists, they are not wealthy but not poor either. Now, they are taking a break from their artistic commissions and journeying to Murano, to check out the possibility of recording their glamour in glass.
Unexpectedly, their exploratory journey turns sour. Attacked by pirates (are they really pirates?) and rescued by a kind gentleman (is he really kind? or a gentleman?), they end up destitute and suspected of a large-scale fraud by the Murano police.
Jane and Vincent try to figure out who is responsible for their predicament, try to find their way our, but neither is easy without funds. Unable to leave Murano or prove their innocence, they are left on the streets of a foreign city, hungry and cold. Extreme poverty is a novel and harrying experience for both of them. They know they’ve been swindled but they don’t know why and by whom? And they don’t have any money – neither for a hotel nor for their next meal and definitely not for a prolonged investigation. What are they to do?

In the situation where hope seems elusive, their mutual love surges to the fore, the leitmotif of this book and of the entire series. Aided by their talents at glamour and their ingenuity, their love helps them deal with bad health and privations, suspicious Murano glassmakers and greedy swindlers.

The heist, which crowns this novel, is a jewel of inventiveness, and like in any heist story, the Murphy’s Law is prevalent, but Jane and Vincent triumph nonetheless, beating the overwhelming odds and unscrupulous thieves.
I love these protagonists. They are depicted with the honesty rare in the genre. Jane is a gifted artist in her own right, but her main concern is her husband, the arrogant and grumpy but super-talented artist-glamourist Vincent. When Jane briefly becomes the only bread-winner in their family, Vincent turns downright rude – not because he doesn’t love her but because it chafes his pride. How true!
I love the quiet tone of this story, the slow buildup of tension, and the quirky friends the heroes accumulate as they struggle to untangle their enemies’ devious scheme.

I love the antagonist, a smart and ruthless scoundrel with the propensity for playacting, a worthy opponent for our heroes.
I love the absence of the standard Venice ambience of masquerades and swishing silk. The author shows instead the Venice stripped of her former glory by Napoleon, and the local people suffering under enormous taxes. No masquerades but survival is the key worry of everyone.
The only thing I dislike in this whimsical novel of love and glamour is its abundance of glamour-specific terms. All of them are invented by the author and mean nothing to the reader, despite the glossary in the back.
The novel is a stand-alone, but I wouldn’t recommend people unfamiliar with this series to start with it. Although it’s an engaging read, it is #4 in the series, and the pleasure of reading it can only increase, if you read the series in sequence, starting with #1 – Shades of Milk and Honey – which introduces Jane and Vincent..
A must read for all fans of the series.