The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

I’m always excited to see what new ideas Kowal comes up with. I quite enjoyed her magical Regency series The Glamourist Histories. And on my TBR list, I have Ghost Talkers, a book about mediums of WWI who aid in the war by talking to the ghosts of men who have just died.

I love how she takes the ordinary and spins it just so very slightly, in a way that is so believable and enchanting.

But The Calculating Stars may be my favourite of her books so far.

At first I thought it would simply be a book about a woman heading into space. The series is titled Lady Astronaut after all.

But it is so much more than that.

What happens if a meteorite crashes onto Earth and obliterates much of Eastern US? Besides the many deaths and immediate problems (DC is gone for instance), it eventually becomes clear to scientists that this is an extinction event and the climate consequences that are to follow will likely spell doom for humankind. It is 1952 though and space travel is still merely an idea. But this event immediately propels countries like the US to start space programs.

Elma York is a mathematician and a pilot. But those who run the space program do not think women – or as a matter of fact, anyone who’s not white – can make it in space.

The administration says space is too dangerous for women and the women are relegated to computer jobs. But Elma doesn’t give up. She starts a campaign to show that women are as capable as the men going into space, putting publicity to work for her by going on a kids’ TV show, setting up an all-women airshow – all while desperately battling crippling anxiety.

I love how Elma is so determined to fight for her place on the team. And I appreciate how Kowal writes Elma as being ignorant (and eventually realizing her ignorance) about how other ethnicities are being treated. If it’s difficult for her to get on the program, it is many times more so for the women of color aspiring to be astronauts.

“Around us, women circulated in a susurration of crinoline and starched cotton. Not a single one was black. And the longer I stood there, the clearer it became that Maggie was the only person who wasn’t white.”

Eventually she does get chosen (I’m hoping this isn’t a spoiler) and one of the first things the women have to do is work with a stylist to select wardrobe and hair for the announcement event.

And it is incredibly infuriating for her when they have to do advanced pilot training…in little blue bikinis and in front of the press.

“After spinning in the pool, I turned to face the photographers and waved at them. A record? No. Even if I’d been fast, it was because the variables weren’t the same as under normal test conditions.

But that was science and science wasn’t what they wanted from me.”

What an absolute stunner of a book. I read it not long before I learnt of the news that the first-ever all-female spacewalk had to be canceled because the spacesuit didn’t fit and it would take too long to get a different size ready. According to an article I read, a 2003 study already had found that 8 of the 25 women astronauts at the time couldn’t fit into the available space suits (while of course all the men could). It’s taken many steps for humans to get into space and even more leaps for women to get there. And I love that there’s a book like this that imagines an alternate history yet also reflects the current state of the world today.

Without a Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal


“Jane, Lady Vincent could never be considered a beauty, but possessed of a loving husband and admirable talent, had lived thirty years in the world with only a few events to cause her any true distress or vexation. She was the eldest of two daughters of a gentleman in the neighbourhood of Dorchester. In consequence of her mother’s nerves, Jane had spent the better part of her youth acting as mother to her younger sister, Melody. Her sister had received nature’s full bounty of beauty, with all the charms of an amiable temper. At the age of twenty, it was therefore surprising to find Melody not only unmarried, but without any prospects.”

And so we learn from the opening paragraph, that this book, the third in the Glamourist Histories series, will feature more of Melody, who surprises all, especially her older sister, when she turns out to be more than just a pretty face.

Jane admires her sister’s beauty, being a bit of a plain, er, Jane herself. Especially since her sister is quite becoming, both in terms of physical beauty (set off by her well-chosen wardrobe) and her charm (knowing what to say and when).

“Jane could not help but notice the picture her sister made as they were escorted through the palace interior and to the grounds behind it. Over her dress, she wore her celestial-blue Hessian pelisse, which fastened with broad ornamental frogs up to her throat in the manner of an officer’s uniform. The regularity of the braids cast the swell of her bosom into graceful contrast. Her gold curls were piled onto her head and peeked becomingly from beneath a high-crowned hat that had been trimmed with blue and white ostrich features. She carried before her a muff as white as a cloud against the sky.”

Jane’s concerns at the moment, besides her work which has brought her and Vincent to London, is with introducing her sister to the eligible young men of London:

“Is it necessary for you to throw me at every young man who appears?”

Of a sudden, the room felt overwarm as Jane blushed deeply. “I did not know that my efforts were so transparent.”

“La! I dare say half the room knows that I am for sale.”

Then there is that simple matter of meeting Vincent’s estranged family for the first time. His father, the scheming and dark Lord Verbury, his guileful sister Lady Penelope, and his quiet and unassuming mother, among a host of others.

So wrapped up is she in these rather pressing matters (as well as some political intrigue) that she hardly sees her sister for who she really is.

“We talk politics. I am becoming quite bookish. I am even thinking of acquiring spectacles.”

Jane laughed aloud at the thought of her sister as pedantic scholar. “Forgive me. I do not doubt your intelligence, but it is hard to picture you as an old maid with your hair pulled back and spectacles settled upon your nose.”

We mustn’t forget the world of glamour they live in. For Vincent and Jane are highly regarded glamourists, the Prince Regent’s glamourists. And as they arrange their threads and weave their folds, they are constantly thinking of their coldmonger colleagues, who weave a different glamour of their own, working with cold, as their occupation states.

It’s not the easiest thing to describe, this glamour, it’s ethereal and yet when fastened properly, is quite lasting. It is used mostly for frivolous purposes, such as glamurals at parties and events, but as we had seen in Glamour in Glass, also can be used for military purposes, such as creating a sphere obscurie to hide oneself, or troops.

“With a flash of colour like a prism dropping through sunlight, the glamour shivered into a rainbow.”

It is a complicated procedure and some can take days, weeks of work.

“To someone whose eyes were only adjusted to the visible world, Vincent appeared to be waving his hands at random while washes of colour came into view overhead. When Jane let her vision expand to include the ether, his real work became apparent. Vincent pulled skeins of pure glamour and folded their light to his whims. Almost like a puppet showman working a marionette upside down, he wove a pattern on the ceiling with the folds.”

It’s a little bit of fantasy, a little bit of Regency romance, set in Jane Austen’s time, and with some rioting and politicking thrown in. Plus there are intelligent female characters, one of whom actually works (as opposed to sitting around and trimming bonnets), and the other is bookish. My library has deemed fit to label it as ‘Science Fiction’ (the shelves of which encompass fantasy), but to those who think fantasy/SF isn’t quite their cup of tea, it’s worth a try. Kowal has created a brilliant series, inspired by Jane Austen’s works, but truly, magically, her very own.

It looks like the fourth book, Valour and Vanity, will be out in April this year. Can’t wait!

Mary Robinette Kowal’s Bibiliography

Shades of Milk and Honey, Tor Books, 2010
Glamour in Glass, Tor Books, 2012
Without a Summer, Tor Books, 2013

Scenting the Dark and Other Stories, Subterranean Press, 2009

Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal


“Elaborate swathes of glamour masked the walls so that they appeared to be in the midst of a coral palace with views onto an under-sea world. Past the casements of the illusory walls, brilliant tropical fish schooled in waves of shimmering colour. Light seemed to filter down through clear blue water to lay dappled on the smooth white tablecloths.”

Don’t you just love it when a series just gets better?

So first of all, I should explain that this is book two of Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories series. Book one is titled Shades of Milk and Honey and introduced its reader to a Jane Austenesque tale of Jane Ellsworth, a English woman, the eldest daughter, single (and resigned to being single for she is {horrors!} the ancient age of 28 – it is a version of Regency England after all), and a practitioner of glamour, a kind of magic, sort of like painting with magic, that is considered essential for a lady of quality. There will be some spoilers in this review if you have not read the first book, so please, read no further until you read Shades of Milk and Honey!




Shades of Milk and Honey.

Then read Glamour in Glass.

With Glamour in Glass, Kowal’s magical Regency world comes into its own. Jane is a newlywed and finds herself heading to Brussels in the months after Napoleon abdicates his throne. While there, the deposed emperor escapes his exile, and things get a little hairy for both Jane and Vincent.

Moving Jane and Vincent away from her family and into Brussels was a smart move. While I enjoyed the Regency setting of Shades of Milk and Honey, I couldn’t help unconsciously having Jane Austen’s work in my mind, especially Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, as I read the book.

In Glamour in Glass, Jane is beginning to figure out her place in this new world (as a couple, and in continental Europe, where things are done far differently from conservative England). She is a wonderful character, noble, headstrong and devoted to the loves of her life – her husband and her glamour. She is kind of traditional, being a little shocked, for instance, when the ladies stay at the dinner table for the conversation, liquor and cigars, instead of retreating as they do in England.

It is perhaps a little less Austen-like than the first book, and I think that might be why I enjoyed it more. There’s more at stake here, with Napoleon and coded messages and some warmongering. Jane makes some daring moves for a woman of her time.

Kowal is such a treat to read! I’m looking forward to the third book in the series, Without A Summer.

Hugo-award winning author, Mary Robinette Kowal is a novelist and professional puppeteer. Her debut novel Shades of Milk and Honey (Tor 2010) was nominated for the 2010 Nebula Award for Best Novel. In 2008 she won the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, while three of her short fiction works have been nominated for the Hugo Award: “Evil Robot Monkey” in 2009 and “For Want of a Nail” in 2011, which won the Hugo for short story that year. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Asimov’s, and several Year’s Best anthologies, as well as in her collection Scenting the Dark and Other Stories from Subterranean Press.

Kowal is also an award-winning puppeteer. With over twenty years of experience, she has performed for LazyTown (CBS), the Center for Puppetry Arts, Jim Henson Pictures and founded Other Hand Productions. Her designs have garnered two UNIMA-USA Citations of Excellence, the highest award an American puppeteer can achieve.

When she isn’t writing or puppeteering, Kowal brings her speech and theater background to her work as a voice actor. As the voice behind several audio books and short stories, she has recorded fiction for authors such as Kage Baker, Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi.

Mary lives in Chicago with her husband Rob and over a dozen manual typewriters. Sometimes she even writes on them.


Shades of Milk and Honey
Glamour in Glass
Without a Summer

Scenting the Dark and Other Stories