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Faren Miller reviews Mary Robinette Kowal


The first four books this month are fantasies set in some kind of alternate England: Regency era for Kowal’s Without a Summer (third in a series); steampunk Victorian for James P. Blaylock’s The Aylesford Skull (a new clash between Professor Langdon St. Ives and evil mage Dr. Ignacio Narbondo); late Victorian for Thomas Brennan’s debut novel Doktor Glass; and modern for London Falling by Paul Cornell. Despite great differences in tone, all of them have some element of darkness: kidnappings, major threats to protagonists’ lives (or souls), two plots against Queen Victoria, and two villains addicted to child sacrifice.

While the Glamourist Histories series mixes romance in the manner of Jane Austen with a magic that can seem more decorative than dangerous, along with some genuine history, these were never entirely lighthearted romps or tongue-in-cheek takeoffs. Book two, Glamour in Glass, turned what was meant to be a pleasant European honeymoon for glamourists David and Jane Vincent into a nightmare of war, captivity, and an endangered pregnancy. Sequel Without a Summer brings them safely back to England, where their plans include both an ornate new commission for a wealthy client and the introduction of Jane’s unmarried sister Melody into upper-class London’s social ‘‘Season,’’ but once again Kowal’s take on genuine events helps to knock it all awry.

The title comes from an actual description of the year 1816, when ash from the immense explosion of volcano Tambora in the East Indies managed to affect weather over the whole world: reducing temperatures, causing famines and social unrest that mingled justified anger at the ruling classes with oubreaks of more paranoid, fervent hatred of enemies – both real and imaginary. In England, Luddites rebelled against newly mechanized forms of manufacture, some Irish began protesting against the harsh political occupation of their homeland, and tempers rose to a point where allies came to seem like foes. Without a Summer brings magic into the equation more as a target for such fears than as a destructive force in its own right. In these volatile times, all glamourists bear the taint of suspicion, but the most rabid hatred is reserved for the distinctive form of magic practiced by ‘‘coldmongers.’’

Unlike glamour’s supposedly effeminate, frivolous use by experts on the fringes of the upper class to amuse the elite (a description that applies to the Vincents more than they’d care to admit), coldmongers work the streets. While they resemble (proto-) Dickensian urchins dragging blocks of ice through the filth of a London summer to provide some relief for its sweating populace, after Jane’s chance encounter with one of them, Kowal gradually reveals fascinating specifics about the nature, and the perils, of their craft.

For much of the book, there’s a delicate interplay between such social issues (both real and fantastical) and Society in its narrower sense, as Melody attends formal gatherings and attracts the interest of a number of young men. When a specific romance seems to bloom, Jane wonders whether it’s truly suitable, until major events in the greater world of London make her question her own doubts.

A largely peaceful protest march draws violent governmental reaction, leading to trials for treason where she and her husband, along with Melody’s beau, are drawn into the mess, suddenly imprisoned and under threat of execution. The schemer who engineered their plight adds a touch of family tragedy to these later scenes, while the suspense heightens as the Vincents realize that glamour alone won’t save them – and could condemn them.

Romance, danger, history, and that touch of magic all come together to mingle and subvert tropes into a vivid new substance.

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