Glamour in Glass in a fast-paced magical adventure set in the Regency period, during the Peninsular Wars. This is Mary Robinette Kowal’s second book in her series that started with Shades of Milk and Honey.
Kowal captures the language and sensibility of Jane Austen’s era exactly. Jane and Vincent, both accomplished glamourists, have been married for three months. After Jane struggles to get through a nerve-wracking state dinner hosted by the Prince of Wales, she discovers that the prince has offered them a honeymoon trip to Belgium. Vincent is eager to go because he wants to discuss his new glamour, a sphere that creates invisibility, with one of his old glamourist friends. Napoleon has accepted exile on Elba and things are peaceful, so Jane and Vincent decide to go.
Kowal makes a high-risk choice in Glamour in Glass. Jane, despite her self-doubts, is a proficient glamourist. In this book, circumstances almost immediately prevent Jane from using her skills. Those circumstances are plausible and convincing. They lead Jane to agonizing choices, and they allow us as readers to see that Jane is more than an accomplished magician. She is smart, innovative and brave. The risk pays off.
The story looks a bit like a fish-out-of-water plot at first, as Jane finds herself in Belgium, where she does not speak the language and does not share her husband’s history with their host. She begins to discover more about Vincent’s past, and some of that information is shocking. Things abruptly turn serious, though, when Napoleon leaves Elba. Soon Vincent has been taken captive by Napoleon’s advance forces. There is no one who can help him, except Jane, and she is cut off from her most powerful weapon, the glamour.
I like these characters and I like how Kowal integrates them into a plausible world. Jane is a little slow to realize exactly why the Prince would send Vincent to Belgium, but this reads as a comment on the sheltered role of wives, not as cluelessness. Jane and Vincent have several misunderstandings, some of them critical, but Jane in particular chooses the high road: honesty and trust with her life partner even when this choice is a struggle.
… it would be simplicity itself to open the desk, take out his address book and send Herr Scholes the drawing herself. She need not examine anything else inside and, after all, Vincent has said he was hiding things from M. Chastain’s servants, not from her.
But even as she had that thought, she knew that… opening the desk would be a very real breach of Vincent’s trust. Her curiosity begged her to use the key, but Jane set it resolutely in the drawer of the table and pushed the desk farther away from her.
It is refreshing to see a marriage portrayed as a partnership of equals, facing real challenges, instead of tantrums and sulks because of miscommunication or imagined slights. Although Vincent is more reticent, and a more damaged individual because of his upbringing, he too is able to trust and confide in Jane, and doing so strengthens each of them.
Kowal’s magical system is fascinating and easily understood. Kowal uses fabric and thread images to explain how glamourists manipulate the ether to create their illusions.
Vincent’s Sphere Obscurie is a breakthrough that has military applications, but Jane’s innovation, alluded to in the title, is even more dramatic.
Glamour in Glass was a thoroughly enjoyable book. It was a quick read, but there are painful consequences to the decisions some characters make, and in spite of the descriptions of fashion and food, I would not call this a light book. I have not read the first one, but was easily immersed in this world and the magic. The world is easier since I have read Austen and modern Regency writers like Georgette Heyer, but I did not feel like I was struggling to catch up on the magic, or the romance of Vincent and Jane. Kowal neatly balances the war in the countryside with the skirmishes in the drawing room, and glamouring is an interesting occupation. I look forward to seeing more of Jane’s world.