The Big Idea: Mary Robinette Kowal

Short form: Mary Robinette Kowal is a fabulous writer, her Glamourist Histories series is award-winning, and the latest, Valour and Vanity, is wonderful, and has gathered acclaim and starred reviews (I am biased toward Mary, who is one of my best friends, but this does not mean all the above is not also true). Here she is to tell you about what’s at the heart of Valour and Vanity — and what it is may surprise you.


The elevator pitch for Valour and Vanity is pretty simple, “Jane Austen writes Ocean’s Eleven. With magic.” So it’s a Regency-era heist novel of manners.

The way I got there was slightly more complicated though.

It’s like this: What I love about writing these books is actually the relationship between Jane and Vincent. I really like having a happily married couple in the leading role because, darn it, romance and adventure don’t stop just because you tie the knot. Conflict doesn’t stop either, but it changes.

When I wrote the book, my husband and I were in a period where we had just moved to NYC and he was having trouble finding work, so I was supporting us on my theater income. To say money was tight… well. Our marriage was strong, but the outside forces tricky, especially the societal ones that still tend to frown on men being supported by their wives. I wanted to explore that.

As an elevator pitch, it’s on the dull side.

So I masked it, by developing a high-concept plot for the outside forces that put stress on the marriage. In the first chapter, my main characters are attacked by pirates and lose everything. This is 1817 and they are en route to Venice. In the best of possible conditions, it would take a month for a letter asking for help to get from Venice to London and another month back.

Compare that to today, when you can call or email and get bailed out of a jam pretty darn fast. You pretty much have to handle things yourself, and that involves finding some way to make money, get shelter, and just survive for months.

Given the circumstances, the most natural thing for Vincent to do is to try to recover their money, and that kicks off the heist novel.

Usually when I write the Glamourist Histories novels, I read a lot of period literature. While I did read Lord Byron’s letters for this, I also watched a ton of heist movies. I did a plot analysis of them and made a list of the elements that compose a good heist. This provided my plot structure. It included things like:

  •  Assembling the team
  • Casing the joint
  • Practicing the plan
  • Plan goes wrong
  • Car chases

I also made a separate list of set pieces, and scenes I wanted to write. Things like:

  • Gondola Chase
  • Lord Byron swimming the canal
  • Italian nuns kicking ass
  • Using glamour to mask a room

I matched my set pieces up with my plot structure and then filled in the gaps in between them to come up with an outline. But underneath all of this, I have Jane and Vincent and their relationship as my anchor.

So in some ways, the entire novel is really a long con. It feels like you’re reading a heist, but really this is a story about marriage.

With gondola chases. And magic.


Valour and Vanity: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s journal. Follow her on Twitter.

42 Comments on “The Big Idea: Mary Robinette Kowal”

  1. V&V is one of my favorite Glamourist Histories books to date. It’s definitely worth snapping up a copy if you get the chance!

  2. Pift, everyone should be able to tell that this is actually Scalzi pretending to be MRK. Posting it to his own site is just a double fake to confuse us. They’re tricky, these two, but we’re onto them!

  3. Well crumb; now I’m two behind on the series. OK, ordering #3 from the library right now.

  4. “The elevator pitch for Valour and Vanity is pretty simple, “Jane Austen writes Ocean’s Eleven. With magic.” So it’s a Regency-era heist novel of manners.”

    I can’t wait to crack open my copy and settle on the couch with a big pot of tea to read this.

  5. Is it wrong of me to just want to skip to the end? Also, where’s the +1 button on “TAKE MY MONEY ALREADY!!!”

    Yes, yes. I came late to the party. I’ll be over here, reading. With tea. You’re all welcome to join me. I’m even civilized enough to share the pot.

  6. Jane Austen writes Ocean’s Eleven.

    Woah, that sounds cool.

    With magic.

    (head explodes)

  7. I’m looking forward to starting this series and this just increases my enthusiasm. And I am glad to hear about another happy couple in fiction. One of the things that kept me watching Medium on tv was that they had a good (but not perfect) marriage. People working to get along doesn’t have less conflict potential than singles & dating but it always feels under-explored.

  8. For some reason I read the title as “Velour and Vanity.” Which has some possibilities itself, huh? No. Probably not. Too ’70s. And not 1870s.

  9. Yay!! Between this and Sparrow Hill Road, I have a reason to spend a weekend in San Francisco!

  10. *reads elevator pitch*

    *moves Kowal up to #1 on TBR list*

    *goes back and reads rest of post*

    This series has been recommended to me in passing a few times but I’m suddenly really offended that it hasn’t been recommended to me at least twice a week. This looks like all of my favorite things!

  11. I am really looking forward to this installment! I will definitely have to work in a trip to the bookstore this week.

  12. Just a wonderful read. My favorite of the Glamourist Histories so far. (and that is a pretty high bar to start with)

  13. Though I don’t usually read period romance novels, I really appreciated how exquisitely written SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY was. A friend of mine is a big Jane Austen fan but not really into fantasy. I’ve now got her hooked on the audiobook versions of MRK’s series.

    I was privileged to hear Mary give a live reading of part of this book at Gen Con. Sounds fantastic.

  14. You write very well. Read your first Glamourist because I was miffed at some slights made against you and found the style top-notch, if a bit romantic. Have ordered your second, so your most recent addition may be a bit away from me right now (forgive me, I often have about 30 books-in-reading). Looking forward to it, though.

  15. I haven’t gotten around to reading this series yet (probably will at some point, just haven’t yet), but hoo boy, does this one ever sound promising :)

  16. I was going to draft more this evening, but I have a bottle of gin at home, and soon shall have this book to accompany it.

  17. This new book sounds great! I just finished “Glamour in Glass” (having discovered this series thanks to an older “Big Idea” post) and now I will need to hurry up with book 3, so that I can get to this one – the series looks like it’s getting better and better and I look forward to many more hours of enjoyment reading it.

  18. @Mary Robinette Kowal
    Which is the first novel in the series?
    Should I start there if my library doesn’t have them all yet? (FYI: They probably will soon, because I’m going to request them if they don’t).

  19. @Tenar Darell The books are written to be standalones, so you can step into the series at any point. There’s a long character arc, and they are sequential, but the plots are self-contained. I worked really hard to avoid creating spoilers for the previous books so you can read them as prequels.

    If you want to read in chronological order though, this is the order.
    1. Shades of Milk and Honey
    2. Glamour in Glass
    3. Without a Summer
    4. Valour and Vanity.

    The final book, Of Noble Family, comes out April 2015.

  20. @Mary Robinette Kowal
    I already requested #1 through ILL, but I’m glad to hear they can be read in varied order. I have a sneaking suspicion these could be really popular for summer reading, so it’s always nice to know of series that can be read out of order. Thank you!

  21. I picked up Shades of Milk and Honey after the big hullabaloo earlier this year-that is, in fact, where I learned of Ms Kowal. My dad was the one who got me into reading science fiction and fantasy, but he owned and read few, if any, books written by women. Any books I’ve found in those categories were ones that I happened upon in a used-book store or the library (as I grew up in a VERY small town, neither had even a decent selection). I absolutely adored SoMaH and immediately picked up the next two books as soon as I could. They are so much better than the books I had available to me before. The women are human, not just flimsy cardboard-cutout damsels to be rescued and objectified. Thanks to you and Seanan McGuire, I’ve learned that there are books out there that are a million times better than the dull, sexist tropes in the “well-known” science fiction and fantasy genres. I read them because they were what I had available; thanks to MRK and SM, I now know that there was an empty space in me that was starving for books like this. I’d been getting bored over the years but now that I know these books and others like them exist, I’ve found my love of these kinds of books coming back from the brink of death and growing like a magic beanstalk. Thanks to you, and John Scalzi, and Seanan McGuire, and Jim Hines, I’m rediscovering the genre and finding the gems my dad neither knew nor cared existed.

  22. This is a fabulous novel in an increasingly awesome series. Everyone should buy or borrow all of them. (There’s also a delightful cameo appearance by a character we know and love).

  23. I read Shades of Milk and Honey while chewing my fingers off with craving for Brandon Sanderson’s most recent door-stopper.

    And I was distracted from my mania for a full twelve hours, which is a remarkable feat if you know me.

    So yes, I am buying this new book by Mrs. Kowal, and yes, I am going to devour it gleefully, and yes, it will most assuredly distract me for a few days while I probably should be doing something important, like schoolwork.

    Thank you for another inevitably addicting read, Mrs. Kowal!

  24. Got a chance to catch a panel with Mary on it this last weekend at c2e2 and it was awesome. I also got to talk to her for a minute when she was signing and she seems like a fantastic person. I asked if you and her were going to collaborate on any more dresses and she said that not only would she put you in a dress, but she would gladly put Pat Rothfuss in one as well, and to top it all off she would wear the male equivalent for that time period. I suggested this to Pat as a stretch goal for World Builders and he seemed receptive (though he may have just been humoring me). That is definitely something I would pay to see.

  25. My compliments to the host for bringing this future purchase to my attention. Although the blurb could just have read “Militant Catholic Nuns”, and I’d have been happy to buy.

  26. ooh, goody, #4! 8-) will have to see if the local PL has it yet. These are great, and remind me rather a lot of a similar (but completely different!!!) series of historical-period-magic-working, which some of you might also enjoy: Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer’s epistolary series, Sorcery and Cecelia, The Grand Tour, and The Mislaid Magician. Oh, Wrede’s Wiki article calls this series “Cecelia and Kate”.

  27. It sounded interesting enough that I finally read the first book, followed by the other two. The series was quite enjoyable, and as chimne mentioned it did remind me of the Cecelia and Kate series.