"Vincent. You do not have to do better. You are already everything that I want. Whether we are living in a garret or Carlton House, I will love you. Stop letting that man punish you when you have done nothing wrong."
He looked utterly unmoored. "But what have I done right?"
The corner of his mouth curved upwards. "Yes." He flexed his hands, and then clenched them again.
"And your father is wrong. Glamour is a noble art, and this will pass."
Sir David and Lady Jane Vincent, official Glamourists to the Prince of England and invaluable assets to the crown, are back at it again in Valour and Vanity, the fourth book in the ongoing Glamourist Histories series by Mary Robinette Kowal. Fresh from the wedding of her beloved younger sister Melody, Jane and Vincent leave the tensions of the British Court and decide to take a trip to Italy. Here, with the hospitality of Vincent’s good friend Lord Byron (yes, that Lord Byron), the pair hopes to perfect the Sphere Obscurie—preserving a fold of magic in a glass sphere—by working closely with the world-renowned glass blowers of Venice.
Except everything goes terribly wrong.
The Vincent’s ship is boarded by Turkish pirates, and the duo are robbed of all of their belongings. Lord Byron is nowhere to be found when they finally arrive in Venice, and the only “friend” the couple makes turns out to be an exceptional con man, who empties the Vincent’s bank account.
Destitute, prevented from leaving Venice by the local police, and without the possibility of any help coming for months, Jane and Vincent are on their own—and soon their marriage begins to feel the strain of their financial misfortune. Jane is able to find work by teaching glamour at a local church, but Vincent is reduced to performing feats of glamour in the street for pennies—a crushing blow to Vincent’s considerable ego.
But all is not lost. When the couple spies their con man once again, the pair (with the help of a few new friends) formulate a plan to get even—and steal all their money back with a little magic and a lot of daring.
I can’t say that this is my favorite book in the Glamourist Histories series, but it’s certainly a brave move by author Mary Robinette Kowal. While Shades of Milk and Honey decidedly mimicked Jane Austen’s lighter regency romances (to the novel’s disadvantage, since mimicking Austen and doing it well is a very hard thing to pull off), I very much appreciate Kowal’s persistence in revealing what happens after the fairytale wedding. In Valour and Vanity, more than any other book in the series, we see the dark side of marriage—even when that marriage is full of love. In this fourth book, Vincent tackles the demons of his past (again); his father's memory haunts his every move. But this time it’s even worse than the ghosts he faced in Glamour in Glass, since his father’s evil premonitions—that Vincent will end up penniless and performing in the streets—have come true. As such, Vincent faces his deepest fear as a husband and a man because he cannot provide for his wife. This, of course, means that Vincent transforms from proud, creative genius and doting husband to brooding, resentful, unaffectionate jerk.
Meanwhile, Jane is the one working and bringing in the income that sustains the both of them in their impoverished state. Of course, this causes Vincent much grief as he is the talented glamourist, he is the one who should provide for his beloved…but cannot. This tension—which is the true driving force in this novel, much moreso than the heist story (I’ll get to that in a bit)—is expertly written and infinitely believable, and I applaud Kowal’s gusto in picking apart this relationship and diving into the demands of patriarchy and manhood, especially in this regency era. Similarly, I was very glad to see that the memory and consequences of Jane’s miscarriage in Glamour in Glass is revisited here, as well as the magical technique that was such a driving force (with political implications) in that book.
These character and relationship praises said, I was not crazy about was Jane’s role and her response to her husband’s meltdown. In all of the Glamourist books, Jane (and everyone else, including her husband) regards her as the supporting glamourist. She is the Muse that inspires Vincent’s great works, and even when she has brilliant ideas or makes discoveries that could Save the Day, she’s perpetually the Robin to her husband’s Batman. (Can’t Jane be Batman, just once?)
This brings me to the promised Heist—because the handle for this novel is Jane Austen meets Ocean’s Eleven! (to which I say...meh). When Jane and Vincent figure out WHY they were victimized in the first place and the Heist to steal their goods back from the con men finally happens, it’s a pretty cool job. There are disguises and fake whiskers, secret deceptions, magic-wielding nuns, and more. Ultimately, I wish more time was spent on the plotting and heist shenanigans, and less time on Vincent's soul-searching (and Jane's repetitious affirmations of love and support)… but that's just me.
All things considered, this is more of the same—if you're a fan of the Glamourist Histories, you'll be pleased with this latest installment.
In Book Smugglerish, a mildly entertained 6.5 glass spheres out of 10.