Without a Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal – Review

Without a Summer

Book Jacket:

Up-and-coming fantasist Mary Robinette Kowal enchanted fans with award-winning short stories and beloved novels featuring Regency pair Jane and Vincent Ellsworth. In Without a Summer the master glamourists return home, but in a world where magic is real, nothing – even the domestic sphere – is quite what it seems.

Jane and Vincent go to Long Parkmeade to spend time with Jane’s family, but quickly turn restless. The year is unseasonably cold. No one wants to be outside and Mr. Ellsworth is concerned by the harvest, since a bad one may imperil Melody’s dowry. And Melody has concerns of her own, given the inadequate selection of eligible bachelors. When Jane and Vincent receive a commission from a prominent family in London, they decide to take it, and take Melody with them. They hope the change of scenery will do her good and her marriage prospects – and mood – will be brighter in London.

Once there, talk is of nothing but the crop failures caused by the cold and increased unemployment of the coldmongers, which have provoked riots in several cities to the north. With each passing day, it’s more difficult to avoid getting embroiled in the intrigue, none of which really helps Melody’s chances for romance. It’s not long before Jane and Vincent realize that in addition to getting Melody to the church on time, they must take on one small task: solving a crisis of international proportions.

You can read an excerpt here.


I love this series, I really do – and Jane and Vincent are as wonderful as ever in this book – but, and I hate to say it, and I’ll admit this is a hugely subjective reaction (which I’ll explain below), but this actually turned out to be my least favorite book in the series so far.

And really, it all boils down to my distaste for Melody’s character.

But first, the gushing, because there is so much about this series to adore: the magic system, which is so subtle yet so pervasive – and I loved how this story explored the prejudice against working-class glamourists, bringing the class system into play; the history, which once again is wonderfully period yet seamlessly meshed into this magical world – in this case, eruptions both volcanic and political burst on the scene; and of course, the manners and social mores, which are as deftly rendered as ever. In every respect, in terms of world-building this book is brilliant – just as we’ve come to expect of this series.

And as for our favorite couple, Jane and Vincent, they truly are as wonderful as ever. Kowal once again finds believable ways to test their marriage, rocking their relationship while never calling their mutual love and affection into question, and I simply adored ever scene with them together. This story particularly delves into Vincent’s past, with the arrival of his dreaded family, and I loved how it all forced Vincent to share things with Jane that he’d wanted to keep hidden – which brought out insecurities on both sides. And while Vincent’s father was perhaps a tad Evil with a capitol E, I very much enjoyed the ways he created problems that Jane and Vincent had to overcome together. The romance is without a doubt very much alive, and I fervently loved watching Jane and Vincent’s partnership continue to evolve.

I also really liked how this story – which is based very, very loosely on Emma – allowed Jane to be wrong, to make mistakes, to be human. She gets blindsided by her assumptions and prejudices, and I loved how that fallibility made her all the more interesting as a character – but, while I loved the idea of it all, unfortunately I did have some issues with the execution. I actually only believed in about 50% of the misunderstandings, and had trouble with the rest because to me they felt a bit forced, a bit artificial, given Jane’s established, sensible character. So while I loved the way Jane’s prejudices came into play with regards to who was suitable for her sister, I also had to raise a skeptical eyebrow when Jane erroneously mistook one Indian girl for another, never mind that the two girls were of entirely different size, shape, and comeliness. Similarly, with the circumstances that came into play to entangle Melody’s romantic situation, I loved half of them but the other half annoyed me because they just felt very un-Jane-like. So while I liked the idea of playing on Jane’s unconscious prejudices, very much so, I just couldn’t entirely buy into every circumstance.

And now we’ve come to the elephant of this review: Melody. I just dislike the girl, and have since the first book – overwrought and high-handed are personality traits that never play well with me (even Marianne in Sense and Sensibility annoyed me at times) – but here, in this book, where Melody is front and center, hand-to-brow, very much the maiden in distress, unfortunately a huge part of this story is predicated on creating sympathy for her plight, and essentially, I had none. I just couldn’t find any reason to root for her – which sadly undermined a huge swathe of this book – and worse, this story, as part of its Emma-like construct, wanted me to believe that Jane was entirely in the wrong when she didn’t take Melody seriously, and instead I ended up supporting Jane over Melody, because as far as I was concerned Melody had never earned the right to be taken seriously. I’m sorry, Melody, but parroting your paramore’s political beliefs does not impress me – nor does watching you flounce and sigh, and heroically struggle with a problem you never bother to try and solve yourself, all the while bemoaning the fact that people never take you seriously because you’re beautiful. And then having to watch Jane slavishly apologize for all the ways she’s wronged her martyred sister – oh, it just curdled my distaste. So clearly, sympathetic to Melody I was not.

And worse, the romantic aspect of Melody’s story didn’t work for me at all. I just did not see the attraction between the couple – though to be fair, we don’t see much of the two of them together, but I guess I was hoping for a bit more personality, a reason to really believe THIS was Melody’s man. But while I could easily believe in Colonel Brandon and Marianne – because they fit, because he steadied her and she brought him to life and it was adorable – here, I just didn’t get it. All I saw were two pretty, self-righteous martyrs who were equally prone to dramatic displays – which to me is not romantic. Well, let’s just say I’m exceedingly relieved to have good reason (after reading this book) to safely hope Melody won’t be around in the next book – and I’m starting to realize her absence may be what makes Glamour in Glass my favorite of the series. 

But as I’ve said before, I’ll say again – I fully realize how entirely subjective my response is, and I’ve seen plenty of reviews calling this the best book yet, so make of this review what you will.

In the end, while I loved the history, manners, social mores and politics, and how Jane was blinded by her own sensibilities – not to mention everything that played out between Vincent and Jane – all in all, I just couldn’t get past the Melody of it all. But still, as ever, this is a lovely, lovely series, brimming with magic and romance, and I very much look forward to reading the next book.

Byrt Grade: B+/A-

As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…

Publishers Weekly says:

Readers will appreciate the realistically warm and loving romance between Jane and Vincent all the more for their flaws and foibles, as their relationship is tested by internal and external forces.

Lit Stack says:

…beyond plot lines and story arcs, Without a Summer is at its heart about prejudice: of cultures (English vs Irish), of social structure (gentry vs artisans, aristocracy vs working class), of economic reality (the Luddites vs mechanized manufacturing, workers vs government re: working conditions), even of personal biases (beauty vs knowledge, the past vs the present).  It is admirable that we see these prejudices in not only the “villains” of the story, but in its heroes, as well.

Kirkus Reviews says:

Kowal has penned a wonderful Regency romance/fantasy crossover with fascinating tidbits of and nods to history…A creative, elegantly crafted novel that combines magical elements, historical intrigue, and both a broad and an intimate canvas of human weakness and virtue.