Monday, July 8, 2013

Women and the Creative Arts: Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamour in Glass

I wonder if there's a new trend emerging in fantasy literature.  Stereotypical fantasy novels utilize the imagery and setting of medieval Europe: knights, dragons, swords, kings, etc.  They don't call it "swords and sorcery" for nothing.

But in the last decade or so, I've noticed several authors turning toward a different shared historical setting--19th century Britain.  Naomi Novik's His Majesty's Dragon, released in 2005, along with the rest of the Temeraire series, envisions how the Napoleonic Wars would have differed if Britain had an aerial corps of dragons and riders.

Jo Walton's Tooth and Claw, published in 2003, doesn't share the same specificity of historical context, but the language, social customs, and general setting evokes the feeling of a Victorian novel--though this one is populated entirely with dragons.

Recently, I stumbled across another series that fits this trend--Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamourist Histories series--that, quite frankly, I probably should have been aware of much sooner.  The series begins with the novel Shades of Milk and Honey (2010), but I missed that one and skipped straight to the second novel in the series: Glamour in Glass (2012).  The third novel in the series, Without a Summer, came out this past April.  This series, too, fits into the trend of fantasy novels set in 19th-century Britain; in this case, it's specifically the Regency period, and Glamour and Glass focuses on the Hundred Days, the period of time between Napoleon's return from exile, and the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon's ultimate surrender, and the return of King Louis XVIII.  Here, like Novik's Temeraire series, Kowal poses a question: what if magic were part of the everyday, domestic world of Britain?

To do this, Glamour in Glass tells the story of Jane Vincent, a glamourist who is the wife of the Prince Regent's glamourist, David Vincent.  Glamour is the name for the magic used to create illusions--make a room more beautiful, for instance, or enhance music that is being played.  Because of its function, glamour is thought of as a woman's art, and many of the techniques for creating glamour are described in ways similar to other women's arts such as sewing, embroidery, and weaving.

Setting up magic in this way enables Kowal to do a number of unique things.  For starters, magic is generally without practical purpose--it is there just for the sake of aesthetics and illusion.  Not only is this an interesting contrast to magic's frequent deployment as a powerful system of spells used for destruction, creation, and other practical purposes, but it also enables the novel to serve as a meta-exploration of the function and purpose of art.  Furthermore, by placing glamour as something traditionally within the domestic sphere, Kowal is able to destabilize many of the reader's expectations regarding gender within fantasy literature.

This, then, is the second very strong point about this novel.  Although David is the more accomplished glamourist, Jane is the focus of the novel and the story is very much her own.  Her frank discussions with her husband about the importance of her contributions to their shared creations are a wonderful contrast to the many female characters who only serve as a male artist's muse.  While I occasionally felt that the language of these discussions seemed a bit too close to 21st-century sensibilities, the novel's overall exploration of Jane as a woman, wife, and artist was thought-provoking and well-executed.

My biggest complaint about the novel is something that I don't understand about the system of magic.  I'm not going to say exactly what it is, as I don't want to spoil a major plot development, but if you read the afterword, you will see a question (p. 321 in the hardback) that inspired Kowal to write this novel.  It's a question that is clearly central to the novel, and I think the plot it leads to is fascinating, but I don't understand why it would be a problem.  Perhaps I missed something basic about how the system of magic works because I didn't yet read the first book, but Glamour in Glass would stand much more strongly on its own if a bit more theoretical explanation of why this is a problem were present.

In short, it's a wonderful novel, filled with both ephemeral bits of illusion and magic and more substantive engagements with historical events and questioning of gender roles.  I look forward to adding the first and third novels in the series to my summer reading list!

By Jen Miller