Book Review: Glamourist Histories by Mary Robinette Kowal

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I’ve been meaning to read Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories series for ages, but just never got around to it. Well, the one thing that finally got my butt into gear on this was when I read her short story, The Lady Astronaut of Mars. That short story brought me to tears, not least because there was a bit of it resembling real life for me. Read it – and I dare you not to weep.

The Glamourist Histories are quite different from The Lady Astronaut of Mars, in that they take place in Regency England and feature a genteel sort of magic known as glamour. Like speaking French and playing the piano, every young lady of good breeding is required to maintain some proficiency in the skill of glamour. If you like books like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Middlemarch, Regency-style, fantasy or anything at all to do with Jane Austen, this will be right up your alley. In fact, the first book, Shades of Milk and Honey, is very, very Jane Austen-ish (and Kowal herself admits to being heavily influenced by JA). Yes, there is magic, but the story is more focused on the strained relations between two sisters, the beautiful, flighty Melody and plain sedate Jane, and the increasing strain in their relationship as they both fall in love with the same man. Or do they? There’s all sorts of Pride and Prejudice themes here, from young ladies needing to make an advantageous marriage due to the circumstances of an entailed estate, the dangerous charm of soldiers in red coats, initial misunderstandings between the protagonists, country social events, and hints of possible scandalous elopements all tangled up in Kowal’s form of gentle ladies’ magic, known as glamour.

Like its heroine and its magical art form, the Glamourist Histories may appear benign and unassuming on the surface, but quickly shows its steel and strength. Kowal herself has mentioned that the books are meant to focus on the small-scale intimate stories of day-to-day life, rather than big world-changing events, (though there are a lot of life-changing circumstances that do poke and push its characters in the various direction of their lives). Shades of Milk and Honey definitely delivers that, to the point where I did feel a certain lack of plot in the first book. Happily though, both plot and action begin to pick up in the following stories, particularly in Without A Summer and Valour and Vanity (which features heists galore and a twist at the end that had me clapping my hands!).

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I also love the fact that Kowal has done an amazing amount of research for her books and many of the events in her book mirror real-life events – for example, in book three, Without A Summer, part of the plot revolves around the unseasonably cold weather in England in the year of 1816, which was indeed known in history as The Year Without A Summer, and Kowal goes so far as to ensure that the days of chill temperatures that occur in her book exactly mirror those in Without A Summer! It’s this kind of attention to detail that gave me a greater sense of appreciation for the Glamourist Histories. If you read her notes at the end of each book and also go onto her website, you get a lot more goodies in terms of historical facts, trivia, pictures and so much more. Like Victorian Steampunk Queen Gail Carriger, Mary Robinette Kowal is the author that keeps giving. It’s something that an author doesn’t necessarily have to do, so I really appreciate it, as it makes me love the books so much more.

The one good thing about waiting to read the Glamourist Histories long after they’ve come out is that I get to devour them all, one after the other, without having to wait impatiently for the next one to come out. The sad thing? I have now come to the end of the series. I do enjoy reading Mary Robinette Kowal, and I can’t wait to see what else she has up her writing sleeve.

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