Book Review: Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal


In Valour and Vanity, master glamourists Jane and Vincent find themselves in the sort of a magical adventure that might result if Jane Austen wrote Ocean’s Eleven.

vav-coverAfter Melody’s wedding, the Ellsworths and Vincents accompany the young couple on their tour of the continent. Jane and Vincent plan to separate from the party and travel to Murano to study with glassblowers there, but their ship is set upon by Barbary corsairs while en route. It is their good fortune that they are not enslaved, but they lose everything to the pirates and arrive in Murano destitute.

Jane and Vincent are helped by a kind local they meet en route, but Vincent is determined to become self-reliant and get their money back, and hatches a plan to do so. But when so many things are not what they seem, even the best laid plans conceal a few pitfalls. The ensuing adventure is a combination of the best parts of magical fantasy and heist novels, set against a glorious Regency backdrop.



One of the things I love most about this series, after the first book, is that it features the ongoing adventures of a married couple. That’s not something we always see a lot of here in fantasy-land, especially books that are a mix of fantasy and romance. And in romance-land the story often ends once our couple has found their ‘happily ever after’, choosing to leave the reader on a high note and overlooking any future relationship struggles our protagonists may have down the road.

A lot of this book is centered on Jane and Vincent’s relationship as they go through a particularly difficult situation being trapped and nearly destitute in a foreign country with no immediate friends and no way to see to their needs. Obviously a stressful situation like this is going to have consequences on their relationship, especially when blame is being passed around in their own minds. Blaming themselves, maybe blaming each other for things because they’re angry at themselves… I have to say, everything here rang so true to me. As someone that’s been in a very long term relationship, this almost felt a little too real at times and I’ll admit that it made me uncomfortable to recognize flashes from my own relationship echoed now and then in the arguments. But, I think it’s fairly normal that couples will argue sometimes, especially when under duress. How Jane and Vincent’s relationship is strengthened by going through this ordeal also rang very true to me.

And for all that, this book is not a romance, it’s very much in the fantasy genre. Sure this one featured more slice of life fantasy, but the main plot of the book is Jane and Vincent’s ongoing work with Glamour and developing new techniques through the use of glass globes. This is why they’ve come to Murano after all, for work. There’s pirates, betrayal, and an intricate plot to be uncovered. There’s also a rag-tag group that forms to steal back secrets and set out to prove Jane and Vincent’s innocence. I loved all of the side characters that they became friends with and helped them out along the way. And I especially enjoyed the little bits of heist thrown in later in the book. Also, Lord Byron is floating around in this book (sometimes quite literally). So there’s that.

There’s also some great commentary in here smoothly interwoven into the story about women and men’s roles in society, and also about refugees and how people can suddenly find themselves in dire straights with no one willing to help them. One of the things I found most interesting is when Jane herself has a moment of sexism, assuming at first that a fellow woman in a glass maker’s shop is a mere assistant instead of practicing the art herself. Jane is taken aback by her own thinking after her mistake is pointed out and I think it’s a sign of how pervasive some thinking can be in society, that it takes years of change before the underlying consciousness catches up to what is ‘normal’.

I really enjoyed Valour and Vanity. I think it’s my favorite book of the series so far. Each book really does get a bit better than the last one before it, in my opinion. I’m very much looking forward to reading the final book in the Glamourist Histories sometime in the near future. 4/5 stars.


5 thoughts on “Book Review: Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal

  1. Tammy says:

    I am dying to read this series after reading lots of glowing reviews. And I love that the characters are married. That is rare in speculative fiction but there is so much you can do with that idea!

  2. @lynnsbooks says:

    Like Tammy this is a series that I’ve been giving the eyeball to for a long time. I really need to pick the first one up – frankly, I think it’s a series that I would love.
    Lynn 😀

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