Sunday, February 10, 2013

Battle of the Books, Fall 2012, Second Semifinal :: Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal vs. Auraria by Tim Westover

Our second semifinal in the belated Fall 2012 Battle of the Books matches one of our "seeded" books, Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal, against the Cinderella of this bracket, Auraria by Tim Westover. The book I most want to continue reading after 100 pages will advance to the championship round, to try its luck against Paolo Bacigalupi.

Glamour in Glass: Tor hardcover, April 2012, 319 pages, cover art by Larry Rostant. Glamour in Glass reached the Final Four by defeating Bloodthirst in Babylon by David Searls in the first round and Orb Sceptre Throne by Ian C. Esslemont in the second round.

Glamour in Glass is the second in Kowal's "Glamourist Histories" series, historical fantasies written in the style of Jane Austen. The books star husband-and-wife glamourists Jane and Vincent, who have the ability to weave visible illusions with their minds. In the first 50 pages, Jane and Vincent decided to take a trip to Belgium for a belated honeymoon and to meet Vincent's old glamourist friend Bruno Chastain. Travel to the continent has become possible again after Napoleon's abdication, but if our own world's history is any guide, Europe will soon fall back into turmoil once Napoleon escapes exile. In the second 50 pages, Jane and Vincent encounter ruffians, whom Vincent (played by Colin Firth) bravely fights off, then meet M. Chastain, who shocks Jane by administering corporal punishment to one of his children. Later, inspired by M. Chastain's daughter, Jane has a breakthrough concept for using glass to record and preserve glamour.

Auraria: QW Publishers trade paperback, July 2012, 390 pages. Auraria advanced to the Final Four with upset wins over Zombie Bake-Off by Stephen Graham Jones in the first round and Song of the Serpent by Hugh Matthews (aka Matthew Hughes) in the second round, unprecedented success for an independent book in the Battle of the Books.

The story takes place in the late Nineteenth Century, in the Appalachian mining town of Auraria, Georgia. James Holtzclaw has been sent to Auraria with instructions from his employer Mr. Shadburn to buy out all the land in town. Through 100 pages, he has been remarkably successful at his purchases, in part because he is prepared to pay with gold coins and many of the locals are frustrated miners fascinated with gold. At each stop through the community, Holtzclaw witnesses something remarkable and magical, such as a boy fishing in the air instead of water, and a piano played by a ghost. Through 50 pages he steadfastly refused to acknowledge these supernatural happenings, but by the end of the first 100 pages he has abandoned his skepticism. The last straw for his disbelief was wandering through a house three stories tall on the outside, but containing dozens of floors on the inside.

The Battle: This Battle of the Books is between two historical fantasies both set in the Nineteenth Century (Glamour in Glass early in the century, Auraria late), and both written in a delightful style.

Kowal's previous Glamourist Histories book, Shades of Milk and Honey, was a Nebula Award nominee, and to my tastes so far Glamour in Glass is even better. It features strong characterization, an interesting magical system, and dialogue and narrative that combine for a wonderful homage to Jane Austen, with occasional winks to Kowal's modern readers adding to the fun. I am looking forward to seeing how Kowal works illusionist magic into the Napoleonic conflict. But for Battle of the Books purposes, it might have behooved her to get the Napoleon storlyine going a bit sooner——through 100 pages there is no dramatic tension building yet.

I have read enough by Mary Robinette Kowal that I fully expected the charming writing style of Glamour in Glass, but what a pleasant surprise that Auraria, by an author completely unfamiliar to me, is written in an equally enjoyable style. Tim Westover offers a humorous but affectionate view of small-town America that reminds me of Garrison Keillor, combined with a Gaimanesque imagination.

To give you a little taste, here is our protagonist Holtzclaw ascending through the different floors of the impossible house that finally shakes him of his skepticism, searching for the owner Mr. Walton. Each floor is manned by an attendant, watching over the collection unique to that floor. Holtzclaw thinks he is walking through an empty floor, when the attendant Cannie calls his attention to the piles of dust which are that floor's collection:
"I think you have stepped right into the arsenic powder and blown it to the four corners of the world," said Cannie. "I don't know I should ever sort it out from the sulfur."

"Such a collection would be better placed in vials or bottles," said Holtzclaw.

"It's not a collection of bottles," said Cannie.

"No, I would imagine that collection is somewhere upstairs."

"Maybe. I've never seen it."

On his tiptoes, Holtzclaw managed to cross the room without further scorn from Cannie. He climbed the stairs, which should not have led anywhere, but found himself in another full-sized story, and across the room was another staircase. It was impossible and astonishing, this proliferation of space under a single roof, yet somehow disappointing, too——it was only more stories in a house. A very modest wonder.

But disbelief would only slow him down. Hotlzclaw could shut his eyes, beg for rationality, but this infinite house would still be here, and Mr. Walton would still be inside. Besides, when he convinced Mr. Walton to sign over the property deed, Shadburn would own this house, and it could be demolished if the laws of nature were too offended.
If you love Jane Austen then you might prefer Glamour in Glass, but Tim Westover's wry sense of humor is right up my alley.

We like to compare the Battle of the Books to the March Madness basketball tournament. Part of the fun of March Madness is combining Kentucky, UCLA, and other powerhouse teams with teams from schools you might never have heard of, and every now and then one of those little guys like George Mason or Butler makes a deep run in the tournament. In the Battle of the Books, Auraria is our out-of-nowhere dark horse, shocking everyone by going toe-to-toe with books by acclaimed authors and more than holding its own.

THE WINNER: Auraria by Tim Westover

Auraria advances to the championship round to meet The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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