It Takes Two: Magical Women with Manners

This installment of It Takes Two deals with two novels that fall into the fantasy of manners subgenre in a very unique way.  Both Shades of Milk and Honey (SoMaH), by Mary Robinette Kowal, and The Beautiful Ones (BO), forthcoming from Silvia Moreno-Garcia, feature women main characters who practice particular forms of transformative magic within their worlds.  They also feature main characters who align with the “ugly duckling” or “cinderella” trope which is popular in fantasy stories that include romantic relationships as a main plot driver.

Let’s start with the setting.  Though BO is set in an alternate world, it resembles 18th to 19th-century Europe, particularly France, in important ways, including the implied technological timeline, patriarchal values, style of dress, and emphasis on the fashionable “tonne.”  Correspondingly, SoMaH is set in an alternate England, and closely models the 18th-century world of Jane Austen’s novels.  Even though these novels are not set in the same world, they feel as though with a quick train ride, Jane could be in Loisail to visit Nina, and they could talk about art and bugs and societies that don’t value the magical abilities of women in the same way they do with men.

Which brings us to the second, and perhaps most satisfying similarity between the two novels: women using magical abilities as an important plot element.  Not only are both of the main characters magically talented–Jane uses glamour, while Nina is telekinetic–but we have love interests for each main character who are also magic users and whose abilities give them much more social and economic currency than is available to the women.  Jane is lucky enough that modest use of glamour brings her a certain amount of attraction, because glamour falls under the “category of skills and talents that all gentlewomen should have,” however Jane has a markedly higher skill level with glamour and so it becomes a liability at times.  Nina’s telekinetic ability has made her a social pariah since she was a child, and a large motivator for the plot comes in her family’s sending her to the big city of Loisail for the Grand Season in an attempt to marry her off to someone who has never heard of the Witch of Oldhouse, her family’s country estate in Montipourret.  People see her ability, and willingness to use it, as a marker of her childishness, untrustworthiness, and lack of ladylike manners.

To add insult to injury, Jane’s love interest is a man who travels as an artist, using his ability with glamour to successfully support himself and gain fame, while Nina’s love interest, Hector Auvray, is a world-famous performer with his telekinetic ability, who has made enough money in ten years of performing to set himself up comfortably for the rest of his life.  It is not surprising that people with the same talent would be drawn to each other, as friends and lovers, because in straight-laced societies it is nice to have someone who understands the restrictions under which one lives, however what does it mean that magical women end up with men whose practical societal advantages are compounded by their ability to freely and productively use their magical ability, where the women are not?

It is largely a convention of romantic plot building that makes this kind of resolution possible.  Something built into the story makes them an unlikely pair from a conventional standpoint–Jane is a “spinster” at 28 years old, while Nina is an unmannered country girl who is more interested in collecting bugs than collecting suitors and fancy dresses–which calls for a “happy” conclusion involving the social outcasts finding common ground and respect in a society based on having the right connections and conforming to superficial norms.  In both stories, the magical abilities of the characters has the potential to disrupt the mannerly societies in which these characters are mired, and it is almost as if the young women’s choosing to acquiesce to the love plot and form traditional romantic relationships is necessary for the ability of the story to end, in essence for the magic to let go of the characters and allow for the more palatable, more acceptable focus of marriage.  To contrast, Sarah Monette’s The Goblin Emperor doesn’t need the happy resolution of a traditional love plot to find its end.  Instead, it is the main character’s ability to make sense of the rigid society into which he has been thrust, and come to terms with its demands upon himself that wraps up the novel.

Perhaps it’s a function of the strict economies upon which these stories are based, with social capital being so closely tied to personal wealth due to its requirement for appearances, and the potential for magic to circumvent this structure in some way, or maybe it’s something else that drives the resolution.  Either way, both these stories have a unique chemistry that is highly satisfying on a number of levels.

The Beautiful Ones, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The most interesting thing about the fantasy of manners sub-genre is how the world delineates those who belong, and those who don’t, and this is often the center of conflict for the love-interest couple.  Now, of course, not all fantasy of manners stories have a major love interest, but there is an important relationship that is the focus of the story, otherwise we wouldn’t have the sub-genre itself.  In The Beautiful Ones, the haves–in the country of Levrene, and particularly the fashionable city of Loisail–are the Beautiful Ones themselves, those with money and social standing, who decide what is fashionable, what is proper, and what is interesting.

Social customs and societal expectations in this novel are drawn from many European analogs in the 17th through 19th centuries and have at their center both the restrictions of patriarchy and the lure of curiosity that often crop up in Victorian literature.  Hector Auvray, the love interest, is a performer, one who uses his talent with telekinesis to improve his social standing.  He is able to do this in part because he is a man, and his efforts fall under the guise of ambition and vigorous effort prized in the culture of Loisail.

The Beautiful Ones finds its way out from under its own reliance on well-known fantasy romance tropes in its vigorous interrogation of the patriarchal leanings of its society and, in turn, our own.  The growth of its characters, particularly Nina and Valerie, is satisfying, and though much of the plot could be intuited from the set up, the way in which Moreno-Garcia follows through with her characters and doesn’t allow them to sink under their own weight is what makes this novel not just readable, but highly enjoyable, from beginning to end.

The juxtaposition of two main characters who share the same telekinetic talent, but belong to different genders, creates a lens through which to understand just how much the artificiality of society pushes people in one direction or the other for purely arbitrary reasons.  While Nina may be born with admittance to the class of the Beautiful Ones because of her family’s money and position it is, in the end, her willingness to condition herself to the behaviors expected of a woman of that class that arbitrates her belonging to that group.  While Hector is able to use its standard sets of behaviors as a guidebook to entry, where getting a certain number of rules correct gives him a way in, Nina can much more quickly be tossed out for breaking even one rule.  The human desire to belong, as well as to be free, motivates The Beautiful Ones on a deep level, leaving the reader with a lot to think about at the end.

This novel explores the depths of emotion and motivation to which people can sink, while holding onto a foundational joy and love of life that comes across as genuine, rather than sentimental.  Moreno-Garcia’s writing is colorful and evocative of a world in which appearance and display are paramount.  There are some lovely scenes in which old or abandoned places not only contrast beautifully with this magpie culture she’s created, but also create a tension between antiquity and modernity that, rather than being resolved by the end, linger on the palate for a long while after finishing this novel.

 

 

The House of Binding Thorns, by Aliette de Bodard

Beneath
the waters of Paris, there be dragons. 
After her discovery in The House
of Shattered Wings
, Madeleine is forced to confront the existence of the
Viet dragon kingdom beneath the waters of the Seine, and comes face-to-face
with what it really means to be a member of a House, having returned to
Hawthorn after twenty years of purgatory in House Silverspires.  Magic rules Paris, more completely than
even the Fallen could imagine, but intrigue is the most powerful force of all.

With
the events that brought House Silverspires low behind them but not forgotten,
Madeleine and Philippe have little in common—she as a dependent of Hawthorne
again, he houseless and living in a community of other Viet people—but they
find themselves on the trail of another mystery.  People are disappearing with no discernible reason, and
someone is sabotaging the dragon kingdom. 
De Bodard has crafted another gothic mystery with diverse and colorful
threads, a page-turner full of unforgettable characters who spring from all
walks of life—human and divine—and demand the reader’s full attention.

De
Bodard’s writing is character-centered, her language eliciting the sights,
sounds, and feelings of a Paris ravaged by magical warfare, unsafe for anyone,
especially those not protected by a House, but somehow safer than leaving the
city.  Though the story twists and
turns like a gothic mystery, it is also satisfyingly well-packaged, all the
pieces falling into place in a way that keeps the reader interested while
tantalizing them further into the puzzle. 

Readers
who fell under the spell of The House of
Shattered Wings
will need no enticement to dive into The House of Binding Thorns, keen to know what happens to Madeleine
and Philippe next.  This novel
imagines worlds within and upon worlds, a quality sure to appeal to those who
love fantasy based on fairytales, folklore, and legend.  Anyone looking for alternate history
with angels and demons aplenty need look no further than the Dominion series,
and though it’s possible to jump straight in with this volume, even more
satisfaction comes from starting at the beginning.

The House of Shattered Wings, by Aliette de Bodard

In
the aftermath of a world war fought by fallen angels and other magical beings, Paris
is a place of gangs, Houses, and the lonely dead.  Though every House leader has made dark choices in order to
protect themselves and their dependents, is all darkness created equal?  Or is there something worse at work in
the foundations of the system, eating away until everything is ready to fall?

Phillippe
has no choice in coming to House Silverspires, founded by Morningstar, greatest
of those who fell from Heaven, but he can see the darkness eating away at its
roots, even before stories of mysterious deaths begin to filter in.  Can Selene, who has taking on
leadership of the house since Morningstar left, keep the other Houses at bay
long enough to root out the problem? 
Phillippe tries not to care, but can’t deny the connections he’s made in
the House, can’t deny the humanity he tried to forget, so many years ago.

The House of Shattered Wings follows the
gothic tradition of dark secrets buried, coming to the surface to haunt those
within, but with a twist.  Instead
of the claustrophobia of a country house, she has all of Paris in which to wind
her mystery, a Paris wrecked by magic and civil war between powerful
Houses.  Her alternative history,
though full of embellishments, seeks a deeper truth in its representation of
the colonialism and wars of empire Europe participated in.  The novel’s pace, while not frenetic,
never stops, pulling the reader along on the points of view of Phillippe and
members of House Silverspires, none of whom fully trust each other, but who
want the mysterious deaths to stop.

Those
who enjoy gothic fiction full of dark secrets are encouraged to explore de
Bodard’s novel, part of a larger series. 
Readers looking for creative world building in an alternate history
setting will surely enjoy The House of
Shattered Wings
.  This novel is
a brooding look at history and religion that is guaranteed to intrigue.

Without Light or Guide, by T. Frohock

Without Light or Guide picks up soon
after the events of In Midnight’s Silence,
after Diago has rescued his son from Moloch, ruler of the daimons, who wishes
to use young Rafael for his own empowerment.  Diago and his husband Miquel begin to put their lives in
order with the addition of Rafael, while trying to get to the bottom of the
conflict between the angels, daimons, and angel-born Nefilim to whom they are
both sworn.

Part
1930’s noir, part urban fantasy, Without
Light or Guide
explores human pain in all its facets, and the many forms
that healing can take.  Diago has
doubted himself for so long after the events of his first life that even though
he looks for mercy for others in their reincarnations, he reserves none for
himself.  This time, he has to deal
with the suspicion and even open hostility of other Nefilim while attempting to
solve a series of murders—and the victims have direct connections to him.  As the clues point towards a greater
game being played than just conflict between angels and daimons, Diago must
learn to trust himself again in order to face the next attack from Moloch, who
has only been weakened, not defeated.

Diago’s
humanity, and indeed that of all the Nefilim the reader encounters, is what
drives this story.  Frohock draws a
definitive line between the mortals and immortals, then skillfully blurs it,
allowing the reader to fall into it headfirst only to be brought up short with
the delightfully horrific realization that, no, these are not humans; though
they may make attempts to spare humans when it’s convenient, the lives of
mortals are not a priority.  Frohock’s
use of music as magic is a perfect example: music is both commonplace and
transcendent as a human endeavor, and yet when the Nefilim use it, it becomes
something more altogether—something that can kill or heal at will, and beguile
mortals to turn them into pawns in a greater game.

Readers
of urban fantasy and magical realism will enjoy the way Frohock blends myth,
reality, and her own blend of magic to create a unique fantasy world.  For those who like a historical,
alt-universe this series firmly places the story within its real-world setting,
all the while hinting at a much more sinister world history than we were taught
in school.  Any reader of fantasy
drawn to character-driven stories, will surely find much to love in Without Light or Guide and its
co-volumes.

A Darker Shade of Magic, by V. E. Schwab

In
a world where the color of your eyes—one of them, at least—can pull you from
poverty into the royal palace, Kell is little short of a prince.  Magic is the force that moves the world
in Kell’s London, and part of what makes it so wondrous.  And he should know, being one of the
few in all the worlds who has seen them all.  White, Grey, Red, all except for Black London, of course.  Lila Bard is a thief and pickpocket
living in the London Kell knows as Grey, dreaming of getting out of her life of
poverty, of having a ship and all the world at her fingertips. That dream seems
pretty far off, until Lila picks the wrong pocket, and gets more than a trinket
to fence.

Kell
and Lila’s adventures take them through all of London’s permutations, from the
all but magic-less, to the cup overflowing with magic of all kinds, to the
world where magic is a hunted creature that might very well turn around and
hunt the person trying to capture it. 
Along the way they learn more about themselves, battling their inner
demons as well as the servants of a dark magic trying to use them on its way to
greater power. 

Schwab
has written a true page-turner that relies on characters who are willing to
make snap decisions.  Combined with
the novel’s meditation on the nature of magic, good, and evil, this is an
impressive feat.  The story finds
its strength in two main characters who can think on their feet, and whose
quick movement through the worlds doesn’t seem contrived or rushed.  Readers get to savor the implications
of Lila and Kell’s experiences and relationships, while the characters
themselves get down to the business of saving the world.

With
all the Londons to explore—and the implications of the parallel worlds they
link, this novel is bigger on the inside. 
Fans of time travel and portal fantasy alike will enjoy the speculative
nature of A Darker Shade of Magic.  Lovers of London-based fiction or
alternate history should definitely check out this novel.  It contains some of the classic themes
of magic fiction, tipping slightly into the horror side of the fantastic, and
leaving plenty of room for speculation and imagination.

Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

Every
fantastic story has its roots in truth. 
The dragon who takes young women from their country villages in exchange
for his protection is one such well-known story, as is the tale of the witch
Baba Yaga.  But to tell or read a
tale, and to live through it, are two entirely different things.  In this thought-provoking and nuanced
novel, Novik explores the depths of human feeling and friendship, and the
horrors we all conceal under the surface in the story of one young women who
lives through these legends.

Agnieszka, daughter of a
village woodcutter, who can never quite keep clean, who isn’t as brave as her
best friend Kasha, expects to live a normal, quiet life in her village.  There is nothing to set her apart,
nothing to tempt the Dragon who will come to her village to claim a young woman
to serve him for ten years.  And
then, unthinkably, instead of taking Kasha, whom everyone expects, he takes
Agnieszka.  By turns terrifying and
wonderful, Agnieszka learns more about this mysterious sorcerer who confines
himself to his tower at the end of the valley and has devoted his life to
protecting her home from the corrupted wood that crouches at its edges, waiting
for its next opportunity to strike.

Uprooted combines many familiar
folk tale aspects, such as the Baba Yaga story, with the wistfulness and
nostalgia of Tolkien’s fantasy. The novel is a take on the familiar story of
reason versus feeling, expressed in the Dragon and Agnieszka, respectively, but
with the addition of a strong and important female friendship and supporting
plot, doesn’t feel artificial or forced. 
Agnieszka’s devotion to Kasha is instrumental in her own development as
a character, and defines her interactions with the Dragon, the nobility, and
other sorcerers she meets while assisting the him in his endless fight against
the wood.

Readers who love fantasy
stories that borrow from folklore and legend will enjoy Novik’s interpretation
of many well-known tales.  This
novel thrives on its portrayal of relationships and personalities, and readers
who enjoy character-driven fantasy are encouraged to check out Uprooted.  Those who like their fantasy to be epic in scale, but manage
to go beyond good and evil, will be sure to enjoy Uprooted.