"Don't judge a book but it's cover" is an oft intoned maxim which we're all equipped with. We use it with great frequency as both a teaching too and as a stern warning about being judgmental. So imagine my inner turmoil when Without a Summer arrived in the mail from Tor publishing. My wife, an enormous fan of all things Victorian England, chuckled in amusement at the confused look on my face. I was determined not to take the cover at face value, but the description on the jacket didn't give me much hope. Weathering such descriptors as "Austen-esque drama" in the face of my cowboy space opera sensibilities, I settled in for what I assumed was going to be an experience beyond my sphere of enjoyment. I couldn't have misjudged this book by it's cover any more severely.
Without a Summer is a historical fiction (or alternate history) fantasy set in Regency era England. This was a ten year period starting around 1811 where the Prince of Wales ruled as a proxy in the stead of mad King George III. As you've probably guessed from the title, the exact year is 1816, known as the year without a summer (where global temperatures were drastically lower as a result of the eruption of Mount Tambora in the winter of 1815). In the world of the novel, humans have access to a unique type of magic called Glamour, which is mainly an illusionary ability but can also be used (to the great peril of the wielder) to affect minor temperature changes both hot and cold. Coldmongers are a working class guild of such folk, who are viewed with great suspicion as the culprits behind the unseasonable weather.
Our protagonist is Jane Ellsworth, who along with her husband Sir David Vincent, are the Prince Regent's Glamourists. Their mastery of this art, which is much like sewing with materials of ethereal light, has gained them great fame and renown. When they're commissioned to decorate a nobleman's ballroom in London, Jane takes it as an excellent opportunity to introduce her young sister Melody to the social circles of the city, in the hopes of finding her a suitable husband. The social circles of London can be treacherous though, and soon a web of lies and intrigue envelopes their more menial duties.
Most of you were waiting for descriptions of combat and battle. Here you will largely find none. Instead the conflicts are waged with words at high society functions. The wounds incurred are to pride and sensibilities. Saving face is more important that avoiding physical injury. Despite all of this Without a Summer becomes a compelling page turning experience. I found myself drawn into the world crafted by Mary Robinette Kowal. Her skill with details and descriptions brings a vivid realism to the story. More importantly, she's mastered setting a compelling pace; no scene feels belabored, no conversations grow long in the tooth, and she never reveals too much to dispel the ongoing intrigue.
What really sets Without a Summer apart though is our narrator, Jane. I'm quite possibly the furthest thing from a Regency Era lady of standing with the ability to fold glamour magic to my will, and yet Jane is written so relatable that I felt I could easily connect with her. Kowal expertly conveys emotional states with such clarity, at such perfect pitch, that Jane's embarrassments become ours. We bristle with indignity along with her, and we get to beam with pride in her triumphs. I freely admit that I have a proclivity for books with a strong, interesting narrator (my favorite books series is Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files), so Without a Summer is written in the style I'm most predisposed to. But I defy anyone to read this book and claim it doesn't work,or that you can't relate to Jane at all.
Without a Summer is the third book in The Glamourists Histories series. Despite so many cards stacked against it in the judgmental deck of my mind, it is a compelling, gripping, and thrilling ride which I recommend picking up even if you remain somewhat skeptical based on the cover. Slide that dust jacket off, leave it at home, and judge this book by its contents. I believe you will be pleasantly surprised. Without a Summer is available now in hardcover from Tor Publishing for $25.99 and ebook for $11.99.
Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Wednesday's 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 famousColonial 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.