Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Book Review - Mary Robinette Kowal's Without a Summer

Without a Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal
Published by: Tor
Publication Date: April 2nd, 2013
Format: Hardcover, 368 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Jane and Vincent have been recuperating at Long Parkmeade after the trials and tribulations they faced in France. Though spending so much time with Jane's family is hard on her, she can see it's excessively wearying for her husband. Luckily a commission in London means they are not long for the city. Jane though feels a tug of pity for her sister. Here is Melody, trapped far away from eligible bachelors and aging more and more with every passing season. Jane impulsively decides to help Melody by taking her with them to London. Jane and Vincent can work during the day and throw parties and go to receptions in their spare time so that Melody gets a chance at the happiness her sister has attained.

London though is in a state of upheaval. The unnaturally cold weather means that crops are failing and people are looking for someone to blame, and they focus on the Coldmongers, a subgroup within glamourists that dangerously use glamour outside the visible spectrum and therefore have a short life expectancy. There is also the Irish Question and lingering hostilities towards the French. Because of Jane and Vincent's notoriety as the Prince Regent's Glamourists as well as Vincent being the son of Lord Vebury, they soon are dragged into the world of politics and their entire life is on show for the world. Will they be able to save their marriage, England, and get Melody married? That might take a little magic to pull off.

Re-reading Without a Summer I think that I might have maligned the book too much previously. I felt like it was such a departure for the final forth of the book from everything that came before that it was a square peg in a round hole. It was waving at sharks and thinking of perhaps jumping over them. I was so focused on what annoyed me that I was over-analyzing everything and almost searching for faults when I should have been enjoying the narrative shift. Each of the five books in this series has embraced a different genre, so to speak. We started with the traditional Austenesque book, Shades of Milk and Honey, moved onto espionage and war with Glamour in Glass, later Valour and Vanity would embrace the heist genre, while here we have politics and all that entails, from court to courting if you will. While I'm not the biggest fan of courtroom dramas, always liking the first half-hour of Law and Order over the second, knowing that it was coming I was able to look at the book more objectively and realize that I loved it just as much as the others. See, I have learned to admit when I'm wrong, and that's a big step for me.

But I think my opinions on Regency court procedure were very much formed by my hatred of Death Comes to Pemberley. I know she's dead, but I can not ever forgive P.D. James for this book hinging on old obscure British laws and courtroom antics. This one book did more harm then anything previously to make me come to revile courtroom drama. The tropes of surprise witnesses, the fainting of women in the gallery, please. While the narrative of Without a Summer did naturally lead itself to court, did it really have to bring forward all the problems of Jane and Vincent's marriage into public view? Hinting at the lewdness of Jane occasionally wearing men's garb, and perhaps that was because of Vincent's sexual proclivities that made his father hire the prostitute for him that was the center of their earlier fight? Blah blah blah. While I know great worldbuilding takes everything and every aspect of society into consideration, I could have done with a little more magic and a lot less mundane martial law.

Moving on from what nagged me let's embrace that which delights me. The true history being magically woven into this alternate history was staggeringly good. It's not just the bigger changes that captured my imagination, but the little ones, the fact that the battle of Waterloo never happened so that Waterloo Bridge is now Quatre Bras Bridge was a nice little touch, and all down to the Vincents in their previous adventure. But I really loved how Kowal tied in the frigid temperatures of 1816, known as "The Year Without a Summer," into not just the politics of the book, but into people's belief systems. Just think, snow in summer? You'd be more then a little concerned with this now wouldn't you?

The average person doesn't grasp that weather can not be controlled by glamour. Therefore people look for a scapegoat to explain away this problem, and the Coldmongers make a perfect target. They are specialized glamourists who deal with temperature. Even other glamourists don't know much about what they do, only knowing how dangerous it is to mess with the elements of hot and cold. They are poor, they are not understood, and they make a far more logical scapegoat then a volcano half a world away, which was actually the true reason for these bizarre meteorological conditions. Plus, this generally accepted belief of their culpability means that Vincent's father is able to politically exploit the situation to his own gain. Just sheer genius. Or should I say evil genius if I'm talking about Lord Verbury?

Though what I think I didn't really get the first time I read this book is that it's heroine isn't Jane, it's Melody. I just thought that Jane had had a brain transplant and that Melody was awesome. It never dawned on me that this was on purpose. Jane comes across as a little bit of a naive bigot. I know Jane had a sheltered life and was a bit oblivious to things before the arrival of Vincent in her life... but there's naive and then there's ignorance. All her opinions seemed to be based on "wild supposition instead of fact." She jumps to conclusions, has an obvious wariness of anyone Irish, despite the fact that she's working for them, and expresses astonishment at people of different skin colors. But what this does is gives Melody room to shine. Because while she has always been "the pretty one" somehow Jane hijacked her story.

In Shades of Milk and Honey Melody didn't get a HEA, she got stuck in the country with her parents while her sister got freedom and love. Melody has only ever been valued for her looks. It's nice to have our preconceptions turned on their heads. Melody has developed in other ways, she knows about current events and politics. She doesn't care that glasses will mare her beautiful face so long as she can see. She has taken her inability to excel at certain things, like glamour, and developed her mind to compensate. Melody has evolved into this strong independent woman and if Jane looks a little bad in comparison, well, think how Melody has felt all these years being valued only for her beauty? Just another stereotype exploded in artful fashion by Mary Robinette Kowal.


Newer Post Older Post Home