Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal
(Description nicked from B&N.com.)
“After 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.”
Kowal’s series has really grown beyond its roots as a fantasy take on Jane Austen, although the feel of the classic novels remains throughout the story. Jane and Vincent still remind me a lot of Lizzy and Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice, but these two have a much more complex history, in part because we as readers have gotten a much more in-depth glimpse at their lives. In this novel, the couple must deal with some fallout from events in Without a Summer, and it colors a good portion of how they react to the theft. There were a few spots where the narrative dragged a little as the two hashed out the same issues repeatedly, but overall it was dealt with well.
The author has described this book as “Jane Austen meets Oceans Eleven”, and that’s a pretty apt description. This story has all of the elements of a good heist tale: complex plot, help (and hindrance) from unexpected sources, a daring escape or two, and a beautifully executed counter-plan by our main characters. The details of the actual heist against Jane and Vincent take a while to come to light, and again, the story drags a bit getting there, but it’s well worth the wait.
Also, the book has nuns, puppeteers, cross-dressing, and dramatic meltdowns. What’s not to like? By the end of the book, I felt like I was reading a prose version of an episode of Leverage, quite honestly, and that’s one of my favorite (and sadly gone) television shows. Much of the fun in this novel, for me, was watching all of the disparate parts and players come together to execute this beautiful revenge on the bad guys.
In the middle of all of these shenanigans, Jane and Vincent’s work on creating glamour in glass goes on, undaunted by little things like pirate hijackings and lack of funds. Progress is made on that front as well, and I look forward to seeing how the author plays with the concept in future books.
Valour and Vanity is a completely unique take on a heist story, peppered with Regency flavor and shot through with sly magic. This book has it all—mystery, adventure, romance, and a touch of mischief. This is a series that you should be reading, if you’re not already doing so.