my review of Glamourist Histories by Mary Robinette Kowal

Glamourist Histories by Mary Robinette Kowal

Review of Glamourist Histories series by Mary Robinette Kowal. The series is set in a magical regency England. Each book in the series plays of a different genre. Glamourist Histories are by no means books for anybody, but if you like fantasy, historical fiction and want a view into society of the 1810s when this is definitely a book series to check out. They have interesting characters and are very well written!

Title: Shades of Milk and Honey, Glamour in Glass & Without a Summer & Of Noble Family
Author:  Mary Robinette Kowal
Published: 2010 to 2013 by Tor Books
Genre: Regency fantasy, historical fantasy, alternate history, fantasy of manners

My review of Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Somehow Shades of Milk and Honey kept me up half the night despite the fact that nothing much happened the first 70 % of book. I think the reason the book worked is the fact that it is very well written, researched and gives you a view into the world of 1815 society, that feels so genuine. It’s a very quite slow romance story that establish the world of the Glamourist History.

My review from 2013 of Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

This world of Shades of Milk and Honey is very small for the women of the gentry. Both in a physical sense and what they were allowed to take interest in. Most conversations is about the weather, fashion or general gossip – not even very interesting gossip.

“Small talk followed, detailing the weather, then the quality of the tea which the butler brought as well as praise of the china it was served in, which was an exquisite example of Delft bone china.”

The women live in a tiny world that is to a large extend consist of their family and the opinion of their peers. The women do not really serve any purpose unless they are the head of their household. Their purpose is to get married and to make life around them as comfortable as possible.

They are not suppose to have opinions about more important than fashion or art. They are decorative and artful. Which is reflected in the magic system of this world, which is glamour – aka. illusions, which is considered a decorative women’s art along with needlework and piano playing. It is stationary and is therefore not really useful for much of anything practical but is used as decoration by the upper classes.

One of the themes in the books is also the lack of outlet for frustration these women must have had. Even among their family they were expected to be always correct, always tactful and always pleasant. If you are really angry, frustrated or genuinely sad there were no real outlet. You could go to your room, playing sick and let it out there but you would have to be extremely sure of your friends to let them see your real emotions. Glamour becomes Jane’s outlet for these emotions and she grows as a person because of it.

Especially the first book is inspired by Jane Austen (our protagonist is even named Jane) and Kowal has said that she very much aimed to write a fantasy novel that felt like an Austen book. Because of this the first book’s plot is of course a romance. It has forbidden love, untrustworthy men and quite a bit of drama. But if you asked me to tell you what the story is about, I would have to say family and friendship.

Relationships and family

Jane has complicated and very real relationships with her sister and the rest of her family as well as a much younger female friend, whom she also treats very much as younger sister. Her relationship with her younger sister is quite complicated and is a thread that is picked up again in the third book where it also plays a major part. It feels very real, but it also underlines how every small the women’s world is. Jane and her sister are constantly jealous of each other, fighting over men and their parent’s favour in the way of much younger siblings because they are in such a small protected world. They do deeply love each other but they also fight constantly in that very polite British fashion that seems to be so typical of the era.

The characters

Speaking of Jane, it is really refreshing to see a female protagonist who are allowed to have flaws and that these flaws are not only low self esteem. Jane is frequently wrong, she is quite clumsy and far from pretty (which is unusual in fiction). She is however a very talented artist and glamourist. She is also too nice for her own good at times and always thinks the best of people and I think she is quite a sympathetic character.

Her sister is extremely beautiful and is much more temperamental. I think most stories would have chosen the sister as the protagonist (and I wouldn’t mind a few short stories from her point of view). It is lovely to see the contrast  and the interplay between the two. The men are generally less interesting but especially the first book very much take place in a woman’s world. They don’t really know men or who men think as their interaction with them are very limited and strictly regulated. For their own good of course, of course *dripping sarcasm*.

My review from 2013 of Glamour in Glass & Without a Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The second (Glamour in Glass) and third (Without a Summer) books are quite different beasts. The characters and the setting are the same but the tones are very different in each book.

Jane is now married and off to the continent in Glamour in Glass for her honeymoon, which turns into an adventure/spy story. But like in the first book it take a very long time for the plot to step forward and take center stage. The plot lurks in the wings but we get a lot of quite lovely domestic scenes first.

I love the domestic scenes they are so well written and like a great short story it is tiny things that makes the scenes. There is a lot of cutting wit and towards the end of the books some quite dramatic scenes as well. I personally like that it takes so long for the plot to build up, as the view into 1810s society is so well drawn out. Nothing much is going on but we get to look into a foreign world and step into the minds of people who think very little like us.

Most modern people have the luxury of disregarding the opinion of people they don’t particularly like (unless they are their bosses), who cares what they think? But in a world where status is all that matters and the good opinion of your peers is all the capital you got, well there you do not have the luxury of disregarding other people’s opinions. At least not as part of the upper classes.

I really love that Kowal has chosen to set the books inside of real events for the second and third book and has used them as part of the plot. From Glamour in Glass we are in alternate history where our protagonists alter the course of history which I always find fascinating. If the first book is a romantic Jane Austen pastice and the second book is a spy adventure, then the third book is a political mystery.

I do by the way adore the covers they are amazing. Speaking of amazing, the fashion in these books are just lovely and so well described – and never in too much detail. Kowal has lots of pictures of the dresses on her website along with quite a bit of in progress updates about the writing of the books. They books are primarily written with the vocabulary of the time but without being bugged down by the style of an 1800s novel. The vocabulary lends a lot of authenticity to the story telling and I am very thankful that she did not try to mimic the writing style closer than she did. It is very readable and well written. Lovely!

The only thing i didn’t particularly like in the way the books were written was the fact that every now and then (quite rarely really) the storyteller of the story would speak directly to the reader. I found it rather jarring and it took me out of the story every time it happened, so I was very happy that it only happened one or two times per story. I am not used to read stories that is not told from a strict point of view (either third or first). I know it is common in some genres but in most of the fantasy and science fiction I read is written in tight third person. You only know what one person is thinking and that person is observing the rest of the world. I think it mostly annoyed me because I am not used to it. Right now I am reading a historical mystery and it has the same all knowing storyteller (without the comments thankfully).

My review of Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

What a wonderful book! I was completely engrossed in Valour and Vanity and I did lose sleep over it. This is the heist novel of the set and a good chunk of it takes part in Venedi.
Gah this is hard to talk about without spoiling it. Sufficient to say that it was quite good.

My review of Of Noble Family by Mary Robinette Kowal

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I found Of Noble Family to be captivating! I had a very hard time not stealing away to read it even at work and it kept me up far past my bedtime both evenings I was reading. It has been a while since that happened to this extend.

My review from 2015 of Of Noble Family by Mary Robinette Kowal

Opening sentence:

“The presence of an infant in any gathering offers all the substance for conversation on might require.”

I found Of Noble Family to be captivating! I had a very hard time not stealing away to read it even at work and it kept me up far past my bedtime both evenings I was reading. It has been a while since that happened to this extend.

I love books that are focused on relationships and small situations and the emotional impact of such combined with a good plot. And Of Noble Family has both in spades. The plot is for once not a mystery but rather a family drama and it is just delightful to read. It is quite a sad story but filled with optimism, which is something I seem to crave right now.

The pacing and the foreshadowing of events are really skillfully done. I was genuinely fearful for Jane’s life at one point in the book – it was during my commute so I really hoped nothing would happen so I wouldn’t be crying my eyes out on the bus.

The amount of care and thought that Kowal buts into the historical research is part of what makes this series special. The people of color speak in a local dialect that feels very real but is still quite readable – you just need to sound the words out in your head – I do that with all dialog anyway so for me it was no bother – it just added to authenticity of the book.

One of the remarkable things about Of Noble Family and the rest of the Glamourist Histories is that it deals frankly with issues of health, both physical and mental while staying within the voice of the series. Many characters in this volume has mental or physical problems that they need to deal with and that their surroundings need to deal with.  It is great to see Jane and David be careful and mindful of each others health. David has been physically and mentally abused by his father as a child – and issue that is a constant theme in this volume. Also Jane’s mother’s anxiety and hypochondria is  addressed in the book and actually helps Jane handle other situations.

To add to the contrast and tension between Jane and David’s relationship are the stiffness and under the surface hostility that other conversations have (yes that is veague – well spoilers). The constant need for facéde even when dining with family. The constant semi-public sphere that the nobles have to navigate even when at home.

I am not black nor do I have a family background of slavery (on either side of the issue – as far as I know). However it is a subject that really interests me both the slavery and the abolitionist movement. Denmark’s background as a nation that has had slaves in the colonies is something rarely talked about in danish history books. Of Noble Family takes a hard look at the plantations in the caribbean and I found Jane and David’s handling of the situation fascinating and believable at the same time.

I am sad that the series is over as it has been a joy to read and follow it. I do however look forward to see what Kowal will write next. I enjoy her short fiction so it will be really interesting to see what she will be up to!

I wholeheartedly recommend this final book in the series. It is good enough that I have been reading bits out to my boyfriend.

Overall review of the Glamourist Histories

These are by no means books for anybody, but if you like fantasy, historical fiction and want a view into society of the 1810s when this is definitely a book series to check out. They have interesting characters and are very well written! It is a great window into the 1810s upper class society, if you like me, do not have the patience to read period writers. I am very much looking forward to the next installment in this series and it has inspired me to read more books set in the 1800s – so yeah.

I just discovered that Mary Robinette Kowal is the audiobook narrator of my favourite series by Seanan McGuire the October Daye series. She is pretty brilliant at narration as well and I suspect that she is a bit part of why I love that series so much.

The stats: Glamourist Histories

Published: 2010 – 2015 by Tor Books

Author: Female, white, neurodiverse, USA
The protagonist: Jane, female, noble, British, white, artist

This review was originally posted: November 15, 2013, May 5 2014 & May 12, 2015. Updated and edited June 28, 2023

One response to “Glamourist Histories by Mary Robinette Kowal”

  1. […] book takes place in 1817 so like Glamourist Histories, the book take place in the regency era, which is of course why I remember that I needed to […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *