Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal
Glamourist Histories #4
I have been a fan of Kowal’s Regency glamourists since the first book, Shades of Milk and Honey. Every time I pick up the next book, I think to myself, “It can’t be good this time. Surely it can’t be as good or, heaven forbid, better than the previous ones!”
Kowal proves me wrong every time.
(Please note that I’m not being careful about previous books in this review, although no major spoilers!)
In this instalment of the Glamourist Histories, we follow Jane and Vincent to Italy, where they hope to experiment and refine the techniques they discovered in the second book, Glamour in Glass. That’s all I can say about the plot without spoiling it, although I will tell you there is a heist involved.
I was at the edge of my seat the whole time. So many twists! And none of them what I expected! What a delight! And again I cannot say much more without spoiling anyone’s reading experience – I went to the book blind and had a whale of a time, and I’d rather not deprive anyone of that. My advice is, don’t even read the back cover. Just jump into it.
However, I cannot help but draw some attention to the title of the novel. There was a review on Goodreads, where someone was grumbling about the title and how generic it is and how it doesn’t do the book justice. Perhaps it does sound generic; but there is no doubt that Kowal knows exactly what she’s doing. The words “valour” and “vanity” are repeated on several occasions, and different ones at that, and that should tell you something of the themes of the novel. Looking back, I would say they might also indicate certain plot points, but that’s another discussion entirely.
As usual, Kowal also ties the book to Austen, and here the title also becomes relevant: the most noticeable references – the ones I caught and took immeasurable delight in – are both from Pride and Prejudice. Ah, yes. You see where this is going. The titles are very reminiscent, and like Austen’s classic work, Kowal’s titular themes are no less complexly presented. As many know, it is not a straightforward matter to attribute pride or prejudice to one character in Austen’s novel, and similarly Kowal presents the question of consequences of valour and vanity. The more direct references are also interesting – their implications differ from Austen’s, a highly interesting feature that bears more reflection and analysis.*
This is probably my favourite book in the series so far. Kowal balances the cute romance-y stuff with the active plot to perfection, she one-ups the reader frequently, and I’m very much in love with the intertextuality. Five out of five – the ~400 pages just fly by! I’m eager to pick up the next book, Of Noble Family, although also sad that it marks the end of this wonderful series.
*I wrote a little piece on one of the references on tumblr. It can be found here.