Book Review: Valour and Vanity -

Book Review

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  • Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
  • Publisher: Tor Publishing
  • Book Genre: Historical Fantasy
  • Format: Hardback
  • Series:

Book Review: Valour and Vanity

Enjoying the long con

By Chuck Francisco     May 21, 2014

Valour and Vanity (2014)
© Tor Publishing
To state that author Mary Robinette Kowal has devised a magical narrative formula which casts a charming spelling across the boundary lay lines of genre fiction would perhaps represent only half of the equation. When I reviewed the previous book in her Glamourist History series (Without a Summer), I was quite forthright in admitting that a regency England era tale about illusionary magic which is spun and manipulated in a manner very much like dressmaking is not something which is normally found in my wheelhouse. And yet Without a Summer was disarmingly sharp, and vividly engaging, working its magic to defy my expectations. Valour and Vanity manages to engage in a starkly different way, all the while deftly surprising and disarming readers in a thoroughly different manner.

This new installment in the Glamourist History series sees husband and wife magical team Jane the Lady Vincent and Sir David Vincent, official court glamourists to the Prince reagent of England, traveling to the Venetian island of Murano, home of the world's most skilled glass blowers. They are hoping to further study and secretly perfect a magical technique which would allow the creation of portable spheres of glamour granting invisibility, a dangerous tool that they wish to keep out of the hands of those with  nefarious purpose. 

Their boat is beset by pirates, and they are only spared being sold into slavery by the timely intervention of an elderly nobel of Venice, who intervenes to help get them back on their feet. But things which seem to good to be true frequently are, and the Vincents quickly find themselves in a state which they'd never known before: destitution. Desperate and without the upper crust resources to which they've always had access, the Vincents concoct a daring Ocean's Eleven style caper to even the score.

The truth is that while I may not particularly care which style of dress or bonnet the characters wear, I do very deeply adore the characters who wear them. This is the second part of Kowal's enchanting magical formula; she draws into being robust characters, people complete with dimension and flaw. Even more interesting is that each of these characters are first given life through the lens of protagonist Jane, who is herself a flawed and emotional being (as all are). Our impressions of characters are colored in musical time with Jane's, and they dance to the same beat as she gains insight. Kowal's technique is wonderfully layered in its complexity, she weaves subtle shifts into Jane's voice throughout, and together we understand as she does. 

The story here is comprised of two separate compartments. The first half primarily deals with the fall from comfort and security of the Vincents, who are wealthy English nobility. They've never tasted the desperation of poverty, nor the inability to provide for themselves. Kowal doesn't balk away from lettering her characters wallow in this low place, or give them an easy escape. The second portion is a cutting from the vine of great heist fiction. It moves with such duplicity that readers won't be sure if they can even trust the printed words on the page before them. Kowal's slight of hand is delightful, and feels very rewarding after the time spent languishing with the Vincents. There's a superb payoff to be had here, I only wish the first half got to it more rapidly (which, of course, might possibly effectiveness of the end pay off).

Valour and Vanity paints a lovely scene scape of Venice and the Veneto, drawing us in and installing a tremendous longing to visit the famous city. The novel presents a complex and layered deception, then pays if off in one of the most enjoyable of schemes ever connived. Some readers may be turned off on a surface level by the Jane Austin-esk trappings, but as I've mentioned time and again it is a losing proposition to judge a book by its cover. Step out of your comfort zone and try on something a little unknown, the rewards may be quite enjoyable.

Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal is available now from Tor Books for $25.99.

Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famous  Colonial Theatre  in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.


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