Romantic Times: [4.5 of 5 stars] When it comes to writing historical fantasy that is at once absorbing, exciting and incredibly moving, Kowal is in a class by herself. Just as Kowal’s previous book, Without a Summer, blended elements of fantasy with a very real depiction of class struggle, Valour and Vanity balances the adventure of a heist with a poignant portrayal of sudden poverty. Kowal’s skill for writing characters who have fantastic abilities and yet remain deeply human, as susceptible to their own insecurities as anyone you or I know, is just part of what makes her one of the best talents in fantasy.
Married glamourists Jane and Vincent set sail for the Italian port of Murano to study with glassblowers and perfect their “glamour in glass” technique, before meeting up with rakish poet Lord Byron. But before their trip can even begin, their ship is assailed by Barbary corsairs. The small band of travelers is forced to pay heavy ransoms to secure freedom.
Now penniless in a strange city, and with Lord Byron distracted by a romantic intrigue, Jane and Vincent are sans resources. A kind gentleman from their ship offers to help them in Murano, welcomes them to his estate and even finds a glassblower to aid them. But no sooner do Jane and Vincent begin their work, than they discover their benefactor is a fraud and a thief. The Vincents come up with a plan to recover what was stolen from them — a heist.