In the tradition of Jane Austen’s Society
novels, Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey re-imagines
Regency England with a fantasy twist.
In the world of the Glamourist series, certain talented people have the
ability to manipulate the invisible ether, creating whatever imagery they wish;
most often women are glamourists, and it is one of the accomplishments expected
of a young lady. At first I was
charmed by Kowal’s seamless introduction of glamour into the everyday life of
gentle families in the English countryside as though it were no different from
embroidery or playing musical instruments. As the story progresses, however, I found Kowal’s use of glamour
in life and society to provide additional nuance to a genre of writing that
Austen created which critiqued how the value of women rested in their physical
appearance and ability to perform artful, ornamental activities.
follows the lives of Jane Ellsworth and her sister Melody as they participate
in the social scene of Dorchester where the primary activity of young people is
to find eligible partners. Reputation
is everything, and one’s ability to move skillfully through the social scene is
a of utmost importance. Jane, the
elder, does not possess the physical beauty of her sister, but is more
accomplished and intelligent. Her
father, unlike the eponymous Mr. Bennett, has made efforts to support his
daughters in the future rather than relying on their marrying well, though the
Ellsworths are far from the social elite of their neighborhood. Each daughter must shine on her own
merits, rather than any allure that a ready fortune can inspire.
Though Shades of Milk and Honey borrows heavily
from Austen’s well-known novels, it is written to appeal to modern
sensibilities. Kowal’s characters
do not exemplify any one type, and rather than the more scathing indictment of
Regency society that Austen’s novels often were, Kowal’s novel romanticizes—in
much the same way modern readers romanticize Austen, and especially Pride and Prejudice—Regency England,
writing more of an adventure romance than a society novel. Not that this is a bad thing. Kowal preserves and builds on some of
the most incisive commentary of Austen’s fictions, adding her own well-placed
wit where opportune.
writes with inspiration and a natural ease in her chosen milieu. The small amount of world-building that
her plot requires is expertly accomplished, blending reality and fantasy in a
way that satisfactorily accounts for any suspected plot-holes or
inconsistencies created by the existence of magic in a pre-industrial society.
who loved Jane Austen’s novels will of course be enraptured by Kowal’s. Her obvious love of the canon results
in scenes that place the reader fully in Regency England. Urban fantasy enthusiasts—those who
don’t see werewolves and vampires as necessary to a good fantasy novel, anyway—will
also enjoy Kowal’s melding of magical and realist elements. I’m thinking here of Kate Elliott’s
Spiritwalker books, but steampunk readers will also enjoy Kowal’s unabashed
inclusion of fantasy elements in period drama. This novel and series are also recommended to readers who
enjoyed Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels.