“Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken.”
—Jane Austen, EmmaJane and her husband Sir David Vincent have safely returned to England following their harrowing adventures in Brussels—in which the pair thwarted a French uprising, but at great pain and personal loss. Nonetheless, as they have performed an invaluable service to the crown—thanks to the couple’s formidable skill manipulating magical folds of glamour—Jane’s husband is knighted, and the duo are renowned throughout the country as the Prince’s favored glamourists. For all their happiness, however, Jane worries for her younger sister Melody and her prospects in their family’s smaller country home. So, when the opportunity arises for the Vincents to take residence in London for the season to perform a commissioned glamour, Jane immediately thinks to invite her sister to introduce her to society—here, surely the beautiful, witty and graceful Melody will be able to make a match.
What Jane and David find in London, however, is a web of tricks and deceit—at the heart of it all is a treasonous plot against the government, with a master manipulator at the helm (and Jane’s suspicions point to the man with whom Melody is besotted). It is up to Jane and her beloved husband to uncover the truth—if only she can make sure to have an open mind and keep her own prejudices and sense in check.
The epigraph from Jane Austen’s Emma, which precedes Mary Robinette Kowal’s third Glamourist Histories novel, is incredibly apt, as Without a Summer is a book about mistakes, prejudices and disguised motives. There are two main storylines to this book of equal import and executed with great skill—the first being the relationship between sisters Jane and Melody, and Jane’s meddlesome behavior; the second being the larger conspiracy against the government, involving disenfranchised coldmongers and Sir David’s own family. It’s rare that two very separate storylines converge in so nice a fashion, but Mary Robinette Kowal has her own skill with glamour and creates a truly wonderful book that is equal parts romance and politics: This is easily the strongest of the three books to date.
So let’s talk specifics: What worked? The glamour is, as it has ever been, fantastic. I loved the inclusion of political tensions and actual historical facts in this particular novel (the fear of the extended winter thanks to the eruption of Indonesian volcano Mt. Tambora in 1815). But while the elements of treason and intrigue are deftly handled, the true magic in Without a Summer is thanks to the strength and development of its characters.
In the first two books, Lady Jane Vincent is painted as our intelligent, skilled and fair-minded heroine. She’s the elder sister, the once-supposed spinster with her sallow complexion, sharp features (even if she is unsurpassably talented as a glamourist), the Elinor to beautiful and passionate Melody’s Marianne Dashwood. By Without a Summer, however, things have changed. Jane is married to her true love and partner, while Melody has had her heart broken once and yearns for someone to appreciate and understand her as a person and more than just a pretty face. In this book, Jane is no longer the pristine, always-in-the-right heroine we’ve come to know and love in Shades of Milk and Honey and Glamour in Glass; here she, like Austen’s Emma Woodhouse, is incredibly well-meaning but entirely misguided, even snobby and prejudiced when it comes to the man to whom Melody has affixed her hopes. You see, Jane starts when she learns this man is Irish, and an Irish Catholic; she is inclined to think the worst of his intentions and behaviors towards her sister, and jumps to incredible conclusions about Melody’s actions. While all of this is done, clearly, out of love for her younger sister, Jane’s thoughts and prejudices in this book are staggering.
And this, to me, is one of the novel’s best features. The Jane in this third book is not infallible. She’s NOT in the right, and while she’s an intelligent woman, she is no saint, and subject to making poor decisions. In other words, she’s human, and while she makes mistakes, she also must face the consequences. Kowal’s great achievement here is in Jane’s relatability and likability—for all that she makes some shocking unpalatable judgments, like Emma she learns the error of her ways and atones (thankfully, unlike Emma, Jane isn’t scolded by some wiser male figure to come to this realization—it’s one she comes to understand herself).
On a similar note, I love that we get to explore the Vincents’ marriage: Things do not simply end at the altar. We see the affection and struggles Jane and David encounter over the course of their marriage. Particularly in this book, with David’s manipulative bastard of a father, the Vincents have never been under greater emotional strain threatening to sever the bond between them. On the other side of that coin, however, there’s a level of stylistic and phrase repetition throughout the book (Jane always chews on the inside of her cheek, Sir Vincent emits low whines and grunts to the endless delight of Jane), and the romantic tender exchanges between the pair are sweet, but extremely cheesy. Also, I wasn’t crazy about Jane’s mantra of being a good wife and forgiving all of her husband’s past indiscretions because they weren’t his fault: While this is wonderful and saintly, it felt a little manufactured and...well, unfair. She SHOULD get mad! (Of course, as a modern reader and woman, this is perhaps personal projection.)
These criticisms aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Without a Summer and absolutely recommend it. Heck, after finishing it, I started thinking of other similar magical Regency, Victorian and Edwardian-era fantasy novels that fit in the same vein (full list below!).
In Book Smugglerish, a glamoured 8 out of 10.
Regency-Victorian-Edwardian era fantasy (mostly non-steampunk) books
For those who have read Shades of Milk and Honey, Glamour in Glass and Without A Summer, try these books next....
1. The Mrs. Quent Series (The Magicians and Mrs. Quent, The House on Durrow Street, The Master of Heathcrest Hall) by Galen Beckett
2. The Kat Stephenson Series (Kat Incorrigible, Renegade Magic, Stolen Magic) by Stephanie Burgis
3. Mairelon the Magician & The Magician's Ward by Patricia C Wrede
4. Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton
5. All Men of Genius by Lev A.C. Rosen
6. The Native Star by M.K. Hobson
7. Cold Magic by Kate Elliott