Without a Summer: Cold magic in Regency England

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsWithout a Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal fantasy book reviewsWithout a Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal

Without a Summer is the third book in Mary Robinette Kowal’s GLAMOURIST fantasy series set in an alternative Regency-era England where magic, or “glamour,” is used as an art form to create intricate visual illusions. Jane and Vincent, both accomplished glamour artists, are visiting with Jane’s parents and younger sister Melody in the country.  It’s an unseasonably cold spring, giving rise to concerns about the harvest. Jane and Melody’s father is concerned that a poor harvest could affect his ability to provide Melody with a suitable dowry; Melody is frustrated with the dearth of interesting and marriageable men in the area.

So when Jane and Vincent are offered the change to create a magical illusion for a London family, they invite Melody to come along and enjoy a stay in London. But some unexpected troubles and complications face them in London. Jane’s relationship with Melody becomes more difficult as Melody resists Jane’s attempts to guide her path. Vincent’s father is strong-willed and domineering, creating some problematic family dynamics, particularly as he attempts to exert his influence in Jane and Vincent’s lives.  And there are societal tensions in London, as the extremely cold spring has led to prejudice against “coldmongers,” lower class magic workers who can control cold air, leading to their increased unemployment, which in turn causes poverty, labor unrest and riots.

As a main character, Jane can be somewhat tiresome, due to her ongoing insecurity issues and tendency to bicker with her sister. When there is a relatively minor disclosure to Jane about Vincent’s past, she overreacts. Although she forgives him quickly, her reaction seemed excessive and unrealistic, given the social mores of Regency-era London.

The plotline about London’s downtrodden coldmongers and the way they are used and discarded by society was interesting and very reflective of actual societal problems. Unfortunately, overall this novel didn’t engage me the way I would have expected from a combination of magical fantasy and a Regency setting, probably because I didn’t fully identify or sympathize with Jane as a main character.  After reading two books in this series, Shades of Milk and Honey and Without a Summer, I don’t plan to read any more. However, Mary Robinette Kowal is a talented author, and other readers have enjoyed this series much more than I have, so if it sounds appealing I encourage you to give it a try.

Publication date: April 2, 2013. Up-and-coming fantasist Mary Robinette Kowal enchanted fans with her novels Shades of Milk and Honey and Glamour in Glass, which introduced Regency glamourists Jane and David Vincent. In Without a Summer, Jane and Vincent take a break from their international travels. But in a world where magic is real, nothing — even the domestic sphere — is quite what it seems. After a dramatic trip to Belgium, Jane and Vincent go to Long Parkmeade to spend time with Jane’s family, but quickly turn restless. The spring is unseasonably cold, and no one wants to be outside. Mr. Ellsworth is concerned by the harvest, since a poor one may imperil Melody’s dowry. And Melody has concerns of her own, given an inadequate selection of eligible bachelors locally. When Jane and Vincent receive a commission from a prominent London family, they take it, and bring Melody with them. They hope the change of scenery will do her good and her marriage prospects — and mood — will be brighter in London. Talk here frequently turns to increased unemployment of coldmongers and riots in nearby villages by Luddites concerned that their way of life is becoming untenable. With each passing day, it’s more difficult to avoid getting embroiled in the intrigue, which does not really help Melody’s chances for romance. It doesn’t take long for Jane to Vincent realize that in addition to arranging a wedding, they must take on one small task: solving a crisis of national proportions.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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2 comments

  1. I think the covers of these books are so pretty. When I see them, I always want to open them.

    • They are lovely covers, aren’t they? And I found the idea of Regency England and fantasy so appealing. Maybe I expected too much and that’s why this series kind of disappointed me. But I found the two books I read a little flat and underwhelming, though competently written.

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