From the desk of Jennifer Haggerty:
When the second book in a series is even better than the first, the third book will be highly anticipated and eagerly sought. If that is not a truth universally acknowledged it is at least true for me, which is why I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Mary Robinette Kowal’s Without a Summer, the third in her Glamourist History novels set in an alternate Regency World imbued with the loveliest of magics.
The first book, Shades of Milk and Honey, contains many elements of a Jane Austen novel–charming cads, lovesick girls, silly mothers, stern suitors, devoted sisters–but also incorporates glamour, a magic art of illusion used to enhance and beautify works of art. Shades of Milk and Honey ends in marriage like Austen’s novels, but Glamour in a Glass, the second book, takes things a bit further because the story of Jane and Vincent continues as they honeymoon in Belgium and this time history gets skillfully worked into the plot. Napoleon is on the march after escaping from Elba, leading Jane and Vincent to devise practical uses for glamour so the British military can defeat his forces. The inclusion of history, the experimental uses of glamour, and the pleasure of watching Jane and Vincent grow as artisans, as individuals, and as a married couple, make Glamour in a Glass a stronger book than its predecessor. I hopefully expected Without a Summer would continue those developments.
Without a Summer opens shortly after Glamour in a Glass ends. Jane and Vincent are recuperating at her family’s home when they receive a commission to create a glamural, or mural that blends art and magic, for an Irish aristocrat living in London. Jane’s beautiful younger sister Melody features prominently in the first book and she returns here, but instead of her usual glow she looks distressingly listless. The reason soon becomes clear–though Melody has more than her share of charm and is of an age to attract suitors, their local society is devoid of any appealing or eligible bachelors. The solution is to take Melody with them to London where she can enjoy the Season while Jane and Vincent work their art.
But London is in crisis. Though the wars with Napoleon are over, roiling protests and unsettled weather greet Jane, Vincent, and Melody as they arrive in the city. Luddites who have lost weaving jobs to power looms are demonstrating in the streets (actual history) and so are the impoverished young boys who work as cold mongers (alternate history). These cold mongers practice a rudimentary magic that chills food, but it’s 1816–the year without a summer–so their services are not needed and cold mongers are accused of ruining crops by causing late season snowfalls, inciting angry mobs to violence against them.
Jane knows mob thinking is dangerous superstition and prejudice and is determined to protect the young cold mongers in whatever way she can, but trying circumstances in her personal life make it difficult for Jane to school her own emotions. First, her sister Melody appears to be falling for an unsuitable man–the Irish Catholic son of their employer. Jane believes his religion is a problem, she doubts his intentions could be honorable, and she suspects he’s helping to instigate those deadly riots. With mixed feelings she begins scheming to keep them apart.
A second matter presents an even bigger challenge to Jane’s happiness. Vincent’s father Lord Verbury casually, cruelly, and intentionally reveals a liaison in Vincent’s youth that takes away Jane’s ease in her marriage. While Jane “had no wish to allow Lord Verbury to control her actions” (140) and she doesn’t blame Vincent for something that happened so long ago, Vincent’s father has effectively poisoned her feelings and Jane is unsure how to recover.
With lovely writing, replete characterization, and inspired world building, Without a Summer is every bit as wonderful as I hoped. Historical facts and personalities (including the Prince Regent who behaves quite badly) are once again woven into the alternate history of the plot–1816 really was “the year without summer,” caused by ash from an Indonesian volcano (though no one in England knew that at the time) and the Luddite riots were all too real. In their quest to protect the cold mongers Jane and Vincent continue to innovate with glamour, and it’s both moving and fulfilling to see the afterword of an Austen-like courtship as the couple faces difficulties and matures. While Lord Verbury is a one dimensional villain, that deficiency is more than made up for by the blossoming of Jane’s sister Melody, who grows far beyond the beautiful but frivolous young girl she was in the first book.
5 out of 5 Stars
Without a Summer: Glamourist Histories #3, by Mary Robinette Kowal
Tor Books (2014)
Trade paperback (384) pages
Read our previous reviews in the series:
Cover image courtesy of Tor Books © 2013; text Jenny Haggerty © 2014, Austenprose.com