What I've Read This Week . . .Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal -- Historical Fantasy
Jane and Vincent are traveling in Italy with her parents, Melody and Melody's new husband. The time has come to part. While the Ellsworths, Melody and her husband will go on exploring the Continent, Jane and Vincent are headed to Murano to continue their experiments with glamour in glass. Mrs. Ellsworth is terrified their ship will be set upon by pirates. Jane is sympathetic but Vincent knows there's no such thing as pirates in this part of the world. Imagine everyone's surprise when corsairs attack and Vincent is hit on the head. A kind passenger, Mr. Sanuto, offers to pay their ransom. This rankles Vincent's pride and he promises to pay Mr. Sanuto back ASAP. When they arrive in Murano, they are given bad news. Lord Byron, who is to host them, is out of town and without letters of recommendation or money, they can not enter the country. With no money to return, what will they do? Mr. Sanuto offers his help again and allows the Vincents to stay with him in his home. The kind old man also helps them find a glassmaker who is willing to work with them. When Byron returns, the Vincents discover shocking secrets they never expected. Further troubles await them and Vincent is haunted by the inner demons caused by his father's abuse. Jane is haunted by the memory of her lost child and must come to terms with her feelings about motherhood. Finally, the Vincents and their new friends must use all their wits to launch a daring plan that will return everything to rights.
This book is billed as a Regency heist novel. What is Jane Austen had written Ocean's Eleven? In that regards, the book is a big disappointment. It lacks the heart-pounding feeling of Year Without a Summer. The action starts and stops too often. The real heist part of the plot doesn't happen until the end. That part is exciting enough but I didn't really understand why the villains did what they did and why it was so important for Jane and Vincent to launch a heist. Much of the book is taken up with long, boring descriptions of glamour technique. I couldn't understand half of what they were talking about. Fortunately, there's a glamour glossary in the back to help. Also bogging down the plot are lengthy discussions that seem out of place in a period novel. Jane spends much of the first quarter of the book brooding over her miscarriage and talking with Vincent about conception and their feelings about parenthood. The discussion picks up again at the very end and it's so preachy and modern sounding. Also preachy is a discussion about who goes out to work and who stays home. I suppose it's an age-old discussion and within the context of the world of the novel it makes a bit more sense. If you like period details, you'll love this book because the whole middle section is nothing but detail. I really didn't need to know when Jane got her "flower" and what she does during that time. It was boring. Period details are great but they need to forward the action of the story not be dropped in just because they're cool. A brief mention would have advanced the personal side of the plot.
Jane and Vincent and their relationship is at the heart of the story. At first I kept sighing about how much I love them together and how I adore Vincent. Then his moodiness and depression annoyed me, though I understand why he felt that way. I also got tired of him being so stubborn and ignoring his health. That got tedious after awhile but it does eventually prove important to the plot. Jane remains strong, brave and caring. She, too, is a bit stubborn but she knows when to give in. She's almost a little too perfect in this novel. The plot really illuminates just how talented she is. At least now she recognizes her talent and stops being so self-deprecating as she was in Shades of Milk and Honey.
Melody has only a brief cameo and she manages to annoy me. She's a bit less selfish though. I was hoping for Melody and her husband to tag team with Jane and Vincent. Melody's magical talents were left undeveloped at the end of Year Without a Summer. So she needs glasses and can't see the threads of glamour without them. Can she see better with them? Is she talented too? We don't know because she's absent for almost all of the book. Mrs. Ellsworth is given a random backstory to make her more sympathetic. She's still irritating in a Mrs. Bennet sort of way. I'm not a mother so I suppose I can't understand her fears. I have little patience for nervous, hysterical sort of people (I'm sense like Elinor Dashwood and Jane Ellsworth Vincent and my sister is sensibility like Marianne and Melody).
The new characters include Lord Byron and a friend of his. Byron would be astonished and pleased with all the adventures he gets up to in novels. Apparently this one at least is mostly period correct and uses his own words. His friend is apparently supposed to be a certain time traveling doctor from a TV show I've never seen so I completely missed the reference and didn't even notice the character at all. Other new characters include a bunch of mischievous nuns and their students. (Sister Act/Jane Austen mashup minus the singing). I really liked the Abbess. She wasn't what I expected based on my limited experience (and my dad's stories about Catholic grade school in the 1950s) with nuns.
I had my suspicions about the villain in the beginning and then I thought something else was going to happen that sounded like more fun than what actually did happen. I was surprised at who the villain was when Jane and Vincent found out because it seemed more complicated that it actually was and there really wasn't a good motive there. The other villains are all basically supporting characters without much personality. There is one villain that surprised me. I never suspected or even thought about that person much at all. My suspicions were in another direction entirely.
This one doesn't quite get 4 stars from me. I look forward to reading Of Noble Family when it comes out but I hope it lives up to the promise. If this one hadn't been billed as a heist novel, I may have liked it a lot better.