In Glamour in Glass, author Mary Robinette Kowal takes the main characters from her delightful Regency novel Shades of Milk and Honey and, with Jane Austen still as her patron saint, leads them into uncharted Austen territory: married life.
Yes, the plain and humble yet deeply talented Jane has married the dark, fiery artiste Mr. Vincent, and together they have raised the art of glamour to a dizzying level. (For those unfamiliar with Ms. Kowal’s writing, “glamour” is the ability to “reach into the ether” to magically manipulate shape, light and color, sound and sensation, in order to create panoramas, tableaus, and other genteel decorations.) The fairy tale that was their evolving relationship continues, with a nearly blissful marriage and collaboration on a major commission from the Prince Regent himself.
They had taken the Polygon Ballroom, designed by Mr. John Nash for the fete honouring the defeat of Napoleon, and transformed it for the coming New Year’s Eve celebration by refashioning it into the home of a sea king. Elaborate swathes of glamour masked the walls so that they appeared to be in the midst of a coral palace with views onto an under-sea world. Past the casements of the illusory walls, brilliant tropical fish schooled in waves of shimmering color. Light seemed to filter down through clear blue water to lay dappled on the smooth white tablecloths.
Of course, life is still not perfect. Jane’s fluttering mother makes it clear that she expects Jane to put aside her work with glamour now that she is married, and concentrate instead on starting a family. And even though she works side by side with Vincent, Jane still doubts herself and her talent, judging her own efforts with a hypercritical eye and reading rejection in every offhand comment despite Vincent’s confidence in and adoration of her.
Still, life with Vincent suits Jane very well, even those times when he retreats into the mystery and inner conflicts that lent him so much character in the first book. Knowing that he is still estranged from his family due to his art, even though he has risen to great heights, Jane does not push him in matters she deems too personal. We as modern readers know that this will cause confusion and potential risk to the relationship, but ultra-sensitive Jane feels that one of her martial duties is to make Vincent’s life as undisturbed as possible.
The two newlyweds explore new theories and methods of working with glamour, collaborating and exploring the scholarship of others. Then the opportunity arises for the couple to travel to Belgium and stay with Vincent’s good friend, renown glamourist M. Bruno Chastain; they are intrigued by his work with double woven glamours and believe that it may give them insight into how to further develop their own Sphères Obscurcie, which bends the glamour to make the bearer invisible (but only works when stationary). There is some concern about traveling to the Continent at this time, but since Napoleon has abdicated and has been relegated to Elba (and because Vincent would much rather visit his friend than take an extended stay with Jane’s parents!) the couple is soon on their way across the Channel.
Life in Binché is a bit of a culture shock to Jane, and for a while she feels lonely and out of place even as Vincent appears to be invigorated and comfortable in his element. It doesn’t help that although Napoleonic loyalties do not burn bright in all households in Belgium at this time, British meddling in France’s affairs is generally unwelcome in all quarters. It is only due to the welcoming environment of the Chastain household and the inspiration of working with other master glamourists and artisans that Jane’s situation keeps from becoming too bleak. But soon Jane’s circumstances change beyond anything she could have imagined, as she and Vincent are pulled into a world of intrigue and espionage, where Jane’s quick wit and knowledge of magic may change the fate of nations.
In Glamour in Glass, Ms. Kowal gives us another entertaining glimpse into a past not so very different than the one from our history books. Having the somewhat conservative yet headstrong Jane as unintentional witness to not only an era, but some fairly significant historical developments allows us to get a feel for what it might have been like back in Europe in the early 1800s, especially in regards to custom and the expectations of a young married woman in a changing society.
Jane continues to delight as her intelligence, her passion for her art and her dedication to Vincent continually trump the narrow conventions of British class expectations within which she has been raised. Jane is no rebel, still, but neither is she a mouse. She is thrown into inner turmoil when in Binché she is offered port after dinner, not knowing whether she should accept or decline, and shortly thereafter is scandalized when the women do not retire into another room while the men smoke cigars and discuss politics, but instead join in with the talk – and the smoking! Yet she does not hesitate to don men’s clothing while visiting a glass blower’s furnace (as her muslin dress would be far too dangerous to wear that close to the fire), even though she feels terribly exposed and can’t keep from fretting about “how her legs are in full view” – it is the only way she can observe the process closely enough to understand the challenges of trying to fold glamour within a glass sphere that is being shaped, and therefore it must be borne.
This dichotomy between striving to do the “right” thing and doing whatever it takes to achieve knowledge or to safeguard her loved ones is what makes Jane such an interesting character. That Ms. Kowal is able to make her character seem true no matter which direction or what action she is taking is highly commendable. Only someone who has not only learned of this period in Western history, but also has embraced it, could make a narrative this effortless despite the magic, despite the historical context, despite the intrigue.
And, as Jane’s relationship with Vincent has allowed her knowledge, understanding and skill with glamour to be unleashed, her enthusiasm to learn and try even more, and to push the boundaries of what is or even what is not possible, is invigorating to the reader, as well (even if we don’t fully understand all the theory or the applications that she and Vincent bandy about).
Because we are seeing the narrative from Jane’s point of view, the other characters in the book may at times seem confounding and their motives may be unclear, but as Jane would never be ungracious enough to pry into their personal affairs and motivations, why should we as readers expect to be party to them? This is what truly builds the tension in the story until it explodes in the second half of the book to become a real nail biter spanning conspiracies, national fervor, intrigue, betrayal, heroics, personal loss and guilt as Napoleon marches through France towards Quatre Bras, Wellington’s Army, and destiny.
Glamour in Glass is an able follow up to Shades of Milk and Honey, taking us deeper into the relationship of Jane and Vincent, lending a drama that, unlike its predecessor, we are not totally certain of the outcome. Still, with a heroine like Jane as its head, and with the devoted if even at times rocky love of the Vincents at its heart, we are willing to go with Mary Robinette Kowal wherever her adventure will take us.
~ Sharon Browning