Thursday, August 30, 2012

Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal

Writing authentic women's lives -- particularly in historical periods when most women had no agency, no power, and only as much influence as their husbands or fathers would allow them -- can be a immensely difficult task. And trying to do so within the context of a commercial genre that valorizes external action above everything and frequently dives into severely anachronistic social situations can just be the set-up for stories that are "fantasy" in even more ways than their writers intended. But it is possible, even within the boyish, flashy confines of historical fantasy, to write about real women leading period-appropriate lives -- and, even more importantly, to have those women both be true to themselves and show their real strength to modern readers.

Mary Robinette Kowal measured out that narrow thread brilliantly in her first novel, Shades of Milk and Honey (see my review), a very deliberately Austenesque novel set in a slightly different Regency era, where small, decorative, illusion-based magics were common, and commonly left for women. Her second novel was promised as a sequel to Shades, and as a story that would send the newlywed couple from Shades -- the taciturn, saturnine established glamourist David Vincent and the unsure but highly talented Jane Vincent -- to Europe, where they would be embroiled in Napoleon's return from Elba. I'll admit to being worried that this novel -- which was published this spring as Glamour in Glass -- would ramp up the anachronistic external action and turn Jane into some kind of freedom-fighting action heroine, slinging bolts of magic at advancing armies.

I should have had more faith in Kowal; the actual Glamour in Glass bears no resemblance to my fears, and instead extends out the world of Shades, in the same way a sheltered young woman of Jane's era would travel out into the world to a greater degree once she was "safely" married. The tone and manner precisely follows Shades; this is a continuation, not a break. David and Jane move to Binche, Belgium, to study and work with Bruno Chastain, an old colleague and teacher of David's who has a major studio and school in that town. And the rest of the novel flows out from that: David and Jane are in a new place, and still very new in their marriage, so they are making a thousand little adjustments, to the place and to each other -- and this in an era where women are expected to obey and to be quiet. Jane, of course, does not have the temperament to do that!

There's also that age-old call to the newly-married woman: where are your babies? Jane wants children, but glamour interferes with pregnancy -- she'd have to give up her work for at least nine months, even assuming she could return to it at full strength after the birth...and that's in early-19th-century medical conditions, remember! So she's torn between two desires -- for meaningful work and for a family --  and cannot control either of them entirely. Her relationship with Vincent is mildly stormy -- he's lived entirely on his own for a long time, and has been accustomed to being in charge of all of his own work -- which complicates their working life and makes her reluctant to want to get pregnant. But, in the early 19th century, pregnancy is not something that can be reliably kept away.

And then Napoleon does return from Elba, as he did in our world. His armies whip up the countryside -- it had rebellious holdouts even when David and Jane came to Binche, and more flock to Napoleon's banner on his return -- which puts them all in danger, none more so than David, who is considered to be a spy for the British throne. And Jane must help to rescue David, and so does take a more active role in this book than she did in Shades, where she was mostly a spectator at the big confrontation at the end. It's not quite an action heroine role -- again, the point of glamour is that it is quiet, it is elegant, and it hides things -- but she is brave and resourceful and smart as we knew she could be, and she shows that, even in a socially realistic historical fantasy, a woman can still be the one to save a man.

While Shades was clearly a slightly modified Jane Austen novel -- asking what would happen if there were a different, magical womanly art, and the rest of society was exactly the same? -- Glamour is both more clearly a series book, following from its predecessor, and more firmly in a commercial fantastic genre: our heroes are extending and expanding the scope of their magical arts, which is always exciting and conducive to new plots but leads, before long, to that upward power spiral that most of SFF eventually falls victim to. The spiral is very, very low here, of course. But if Kowal gives us a new novel of the glamourists each year, who knows how far their art could advance?

I doubt, though, that it will come to that. The joys of Shade and Glamour are in the human-level lives of their people, Jane and David above all, and in how they live in their very well-realized world -- their clothes, conversations, physical surroundings, and even attitudes are all very period-specific; they're individual people but also individual Regency people, which isn't true for a lot of historical novels. And even if Kowal spends the next three decades exploring every moment of their married lives and careers together, over the course of the entire 19th century, I'm sure they'll stay as true to themselves, and to each other, as they have been so far.

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