AudioBookaneers Features Presents: Mary Robinette Kowal, author, narrator, and puppeteer
By Samuel Montgomery-Blinn
Hugo Award winning author Mary Robinette Kowal visited Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books on Friday, on her book tour for Without a Summer, the third book in her The Glamourist Histories series which began with 2010’s Shades of Milk and Honey. Billed as, more or less, “the fantasy novel which Jane Austen might have written” the series is a Regency period historical fiction with plenty of manners, costume changes, polite conversations, sisters competing for the affections of suitors, and — this is also fantasy, after all — the “womanly art” of Glamour, which in its high society form is a sort of drawing room magic of delightful illusions and fancy.
All three novels in the series are also narrated by Kowal, an experienced voice actor with credits on Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series and Sherryl Woods’ Sweet Magolia series prior to voicing her own novels. Since, she has also narrated Rosa Montero’s Tears in Rain, Neve Maslakovic’s The Far Time Incident, and Oksana Zabuzhko’s The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, among other projects.
Shades of Milk and Honey was produced by Macmillan Audio, and both book 2, 2012’s Glamour in Glass, and the new book are out from Audible Frontiers. All three are in hardcover, paperback, and ebook from Tor Books.
Kowal began the program with a short presentation of an historical shadow puppet play, 1784’s “The Broken Bridge”. A trained puppeteer with work on the children’s TV series LazyTown as well as many stage play productions and performances, Kowal’s delightful shadow puppet antics and “Tra-la-la”s brought plenty of smiles; more followed as Kowal explained the construction of her curtain and puppets, out of white shower curtain and Trader Joe’s boxes, respectively.
Attendees were treated to a reading that was wonderful in at least two respects. The first being that after polling the audience for their wishes, she read from the first chapter of the forthcoming 4th book in the series, 2014’s Valor and Vanity, which takes place after Napoleon’s defeat to Duke Wellington, and is set near Venice as Jane and Vincent sail for Murano and a meeting with Lord Byron. The second is that, as both an experienced voice actor and narrator and of course as the narrator of her own books, is that it was pretty much a “live audiobook” experience, complete with a wide range of familiar character voices both gruff and matronly which, again, brought plenty of smiles and a few laughs as well.
Jane and Vincent only begin to experiment a bit with creating magical folds at sea — creating and maintaining folds in the ether even while walking is an enormous undertaking — before… well, there has to be some benefit for actually attending the reading, so I’ll leave it at that. Kowal concluded the reading with some additional details about Lord Byron — who has some time which is “unaccounted” for in the historical record — and another historical figure, Doctor John William Polidori, a friend of Byron’s and the author of The Vampyre, a “progenitor of the romantic vampire genre of fantasy fiction” (Wikipedia). And one last thing — Doctor Polidori is “a” Doctor, and, apparently known to most of the people in the room and many of my friends who have read Kowal’s books who were not in the room, Kowal has inserted a Doctor Who reference into each of the novels so far. Kowal read one more short excerpt from further into the novel, featuring a character wearing a fez. Which, apparently, was a Doctor Who reference, though as someone who doesn’t watch the show, fairly well lost on me.
In the Q&A session after the reading, I asked Kowal about The Transfigured Lady, a novel she posted chapter by chapter in draft form on a password-protected blog, in order to get reader feedback from the very beginning. Now that novel is Passing Fair, set in early 20th century Nashville, Tennessee, and while it does not (yet!) have a publisher, it’s still very much a live project, complete with 99 pins of research on Pinterest.
Another question from the audience concerned the Science of Glamour, which Kowal explained as “manipulation of waveforms”. In the deep past of her world, humans and fae did not go apart but rather interbred, and so everyone can do magic, some to lesser or greater extents. Further, the farther outside the visible spectrum the harder it is, the more energy is required, the harder the toll on the glamourist. This was expanded upon in an answer to a later question, about analogues between the historical Luddite uprising and the Coldmongers of Kowal’s new novel, Without a Summer. Kowal explained that coldmongery — the transfer of heat energy — was among the most physically demanding, debilitating, and dangerous.
Another question led to some details on two of Kowal’s methods for preventing anachronisms in word and language use. The first is by using a special thesaurus which lists synonyms in order of their year of appearance in English. The second is by using a “Jane Austen Spellcheck Dictionary” which includes the text of all of Austen’s works. But! Even this is not quite enough, because some words, though both in historic use and even in use by Austen, such as “electric” would “feel” too much like anachronisms to be used. And just the words are not enough, either, as Kowal illustrated with the idiom “to have a measured reaction”. This, she explained, was not the way these words were used, due to a different relationship between language and “self” in this time period, requiring the author to “unpack” the meaning into other phrasing.
After the reading, and a costume change of her own out of her Regency dress and a drive over to the recently-opened Raleigh Brewing Company, I got to talk to Kowal about her other recent work. This led me to find out that somehow I’d been living under a rock, because as much as I’d enjoyed METAtropolis and METAtropolis: Cascadia I somehow did not know that a third, again audiobook-first all-original novella anthology was coming, edited by Jay Lake and Ken Scholes, and including stories from (among others) Kowal, Karl Schroeder, and Elizabeth Bear. Kowal said that her story is in a new storyline, not a follow-on to “Water to Wine”, and, after correcting my faulty memory as to which TV cast narrated which previous anthology (Battlestar Galactica narrated METAtropolis and Star Trek: The Next Generation narrated METAtropolis: Cascadia, for the record) named Firefly as perhaps a dream cast to narrate the new anthology, METAtropolis: Green Space.