Jane and Vincent, now married and practicing glamourists, have completed a work for England’s Prince Regent, who favors them with transport to the Continent for a belated honeymoon. They are staying not far from Brussels with an old friend of Vincent’s, who has a school for glamourists, when news arrives that Napoleon has escaped Elba and is gathering troops to attack the British and Prussians stationed in Belgium. (Although of course because this is a bit of a Regency romance, the Prussians do not figure.)
Kowal deepens Jane and Vincent’s characters in this story, having deftly sketched them and brought them together in the first volume. He is less distant and mysterious, as befits a husband rather than an unknown artist. She is playing less of a role, or at least a freer role, and so Kowal makes her a tad less straitlaced. The book itself doesn’t so much strain against the conventions of the period as whistle merrily past them, and is the better for it. It is, at heart, an adventure story, and Kowal lets her characters get on with the adventuring that they wanted to do in England but only felt free to do once on the European mainland.
The story is fun, and exciting, with moments of discovery and deft characterization of the supporting cast. Kowal nicely captures the feelings of being adrift in a foreign culture, only understanding bits of the language. The suspense about the protagonists isn’t too suspenseful, as she tipped her hand in the epilogue to the first book that Jane and Vincent live long, if eventful, lives. The plot is well constructed, centering on Bonapartist sentiment in the region, and magical discoveries that Jane and Vincent make together.
There are also some more meta achievements: The second book in the series is as strong as the first, and goes in a different direction, which is a good sign for the rest of the set. The magic system becomes a bit more systematic. I’m not entirely sure this is a good idea, because if it becomes too systematic, it becomes less magical; on the other hand, there are some parallels that could be set up between magic in Kowal’s alternate history and industrialization in ours. It will be interesting to see if she follows this line of thought. Finally, she flirts with making her characters the fulcrum of history, but in the end retreats from that notion. I’m glad that she did, but I was worried for a while that Jane and Vincent would conjure up the Allied victory at Waterloo.
I’m looking forward to finding out what happens to them next.