Shades of Milk and Honey
Mary Robinette Kowal
Playing with genre tropes seems to be all the rage these days. Sometimes this takes the form of a literary author writing in a “popular” format (Kazuo Ishiguro comes to mind), thus crossing the supposedly insurmountable literary/genre divide, and sometimes it simply involves a mash-up of two disparate genres. Lately, we’ve been seeing a huge proliferation of the latter, so much so that the release of a book called Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters raised nary an eyebrow in the publishing world – we’ve already had Jane Austen and zombies, after all.
Thankfully, there are authors willing to do more interesting things with the “regency romance meets the supernatural” concept. Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey is, just in case anybody is unclear, an entirely original novel written in the style of Austen. To this well-worn format it adds an admirably restrained fantasy element by inserting the art of glamour into the usual stable of 19th century womanly pursuits. Unlike the many, many authors who have tried to turn various decades of the past two hundred years or so into an overwrought steampunk fantasy-land, Kowal is content to let this illusion-crafting magic be the only fantastical element in her story. This turns out to be a wise choice, as it makes the novel’s world feel immediately accessible while also letting her explore the social and cultural ramifications of glamour in the amount of detail it deserves.
The characters are relatively underdeveloped by comparison. Jane, the protagonist, is a talented glamourist who feels overshadowed by her more attractive sister. We know this because the novel reminds us at every possible opportunity, to the extent that this is one of the only things most readers will pick up about Jane until well after the 100-page mark. The supporting cast is equally shallow, falling into easily-recognisable archetypes: the distant yet loving father (think Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Bennett), the mother obsessed with her daughter’s marriage prospects, and a small army of potential suitors for Jane and her sister. The ambiguous Mr. Vincent is probably the most interesting of the lot, being a famous glamourist who initially seems to fall outside the usual social spectrum for this kind of story. I realise that not every reimagining of classical literature needs to be “subversive”, but it still would have been refreshing to see some of these characters taken out of the genre’s usual comfort zones.
Plot is fairly minimal here as well, which in this case turns out to be a good thing. The novel’s real strength lies in the ingenuity of its fantastical elements and the way those elements relate to its mundane backdrop. It’s very much an “idea” novel, concerned with the exploration of an instigating question (“What if Jane Austen novels had magic?”) rather than the construction of complex plot lines. Kowal’s decision to use glamour as opposed to a more showy form of magic turns out to be an excellent one, as it plays right into the themes already dealt with in Austen’s canon.
Less successful is Kowal’s attempt at mimicking an authentic Austenian style. Austen’s writing is impressive for its ability to appear effortless despite being dense with description and character detail, which is probably one of the reasons she remains among the most widely-read of all the standard ‘classical’ authors. Kowal’s prose can sometimes feel insubstantial by comparison, most likely because it adheres to the demands on the modern novelist to keep things moving along at a brisk pace. There seems to be an assumption behind it that the reader already knows what, say, an English country manor looks like, negating any need to bother describing one or two more. Still, this is a relatively minor complaint, and Kowal manages to avoid accidentally drifting into modern terminology or speech patterns.
Shades of Milk and Honey works best if read as a rallying cry against the strictures of conventional genre boundaries. It is one of those all-too-rare instances of a concept that sounds crazy in theory but works brilliantly in practice, and deserves to be read by anybody with an interest in romance, Austen or fantasy. Oh, and it’s a hell of a lot better than Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.