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Shades of Milk and Honey (Glamourist Histories, #1)
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Sirens (Sirens_Conference) | 37 comments Mod
Alas, this month I was planning to review Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s This Strange Way of Dying: Stories of Magic, Desire and the Fantastic, but ran into the problem we all occasionally have after hearing about authors doing cool but quieter-buzzing things: accessibility. I will read this book for the 2016 Sirens Reading Challenge when my copy arrives in the mail. (Needless to say, if Amy were here, she would pipe in that This Strange Way of Dying will be available at the Narrate bookstore, yet another reason to come to this year’s Sirens with a full wallet and an empty suitcase.) This month, instead, I’m offering up a review of Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey.

As a Jane Austen fan, Shades of Milk and Honey has been on my radar for years. I’m not quite sure why I hadn’t picked it up before now—I’d heard that maybe it was perhaps too much like Jane Austen? You wouldn’t be incorrect, fellow reader, if you thought so. The book is an intimate portrait of Jane Ellsworth, a plain 28-year-old spinster who’s been left on the shelf, who potential suitors pass on in favour of her younger, more beautiful sister Melody. I won’t harp on the similarities between Shades and Austen’s novels, except to say that nearly every character in the book has an Austen analogue—the doting father, the fussy mother, the gallant gentleman, the one who can’t express his feelings but has a heart of gold, the dastardly scoundrel, and so on—coupled that with Regency manners, occasionally inconsistent period/modern spelling, and familiar plot twists like secret arrangements, duels and carriage chases.

I like to call these parallels Kowal’s homage to Austen, as it’s clear that Austen was hugely influential, and for a debut effort, I could read past them and get to the best part of the book—the magic. Picture Austen’s Regency England with magic (or as they call it in-world, “glamour”) as a ladylike art, akin to needlepoint, drawing or playing the pianoforte. Young ladies entertain company with moving illusions, like a rustle of the wind on flowers or a scene from a play. Our protagonist Jane is particularly gifted at glamour for someone with no formal training, but then she meets Mr. Vincent, a trained glamourist who has been hired to tutor Jane’s handsome new neighbour’s younger sister.

The interactions between Mr. Vincent and Jane are, perhaps, what you might expect—uppity Mr. Vincent is annoyed that Jane keeps trying to work out the mechanics of his illusions, believing that they take away from the awe of the moment, but can’t help but admire her for it either. Jane is clueless for the most part, until Mr. Vincent sends her his journals with all his glamour notes and essentially professes his love for her. But what I love most is how glamour is so fully integrated in Kowal’s vision of Regency England as piano or drawing could be; when women practice it, it’s a mere frivolity, but when men practice it’s an art—or perhaps even a career. Jane laments her lack of education—everyone coos over Mr. Vincent’s illusions but hers are lacking life, movement, and soul.

Yet, because of glamour’s association with women, it’s still not quite respectable. Mr. Vincent, which we later learn is the younger son of a quite well-to-do family (surprise!) practices glamour without his prestigious family name in order to keep it unsullied. Be it glamour or cooking, making clothes, composing music or writing books, women should just be distracting themselves until they grow into their value by getting married, because obvs.

I’m really pleased to hear that Kowal explores men vs. women’s work further in her glamour-infused Regency world in later books, as well as the relationship between Jane and Mr. Vincent, who are now two practicing glamourists. I look forward to reading more—four more books, to be exact.

This post originally appeared on the Sirens news blog.

Bethany Powell (idiosyncreant) | 2 comments I think I need to re-read this when I'm in the right mood--the Austen comparisons were too much for me first time around.
Now I've heard more about the series and the author I think I would enjoy the later books more, and probably could come to it with a better appreciation.
I read it close to publication and had probably been reading too much Heyer. ;)

message 3: by Sherwood (last edited Sep 06, 2016 06:57AM) (new) - added it

Sherwood Smith (SherwoodSmith) I had real trouble with it--the flat characters, the errors in period language and customs, the fact that magic was well known and yet made utterly no difference to history or culture. I've heard the next ones get better, but I haven't tried them. However, I read her newest one, Ghost Talkers and really enjoyed it a lot.

message 4: by Erynn (new)

Erynn Kerwin Moss (erynnmoss) | 1 comments I concur. This book evoked a lot of groans from me. Might be best for readers who only mildly enjoy Austen, if there are any such people.

message 5: by Sherwood (new) - added it

Sherwood Smith (SherwoodSmith) Or who just watch the movies, and haven't read the books except maybe once in college.

message 6: by Sirens (last edited Sep 01, 2016 06:46AM) (new)

Sirens (Sirens_Conference) | 37 comments Mod
I read this one with a few friends, and nearly all of us agreed that it was a little too on the nose compared to Austen and not necessarily in a good way. But I did read somewhere that it was her first novel, so it's no surprise that her more recent books have been much better.

I agree with y'all, those who love Jane Austen REALLY REALLY LOVE Jane Austen, and you can't really mess with her. -FB

Margaret (gwyneira) | 3 comments I liked the magic system and the exploration of men's vs. women's work, but yeah, the problems with period language and customs just kept bouncing me out. I finished it, but haven't bothered with the others.

I did like "The Lady Astronaut of Mars", though, so maybe I'll give Ghost Talkers a shot -- good to know you liked it, Sherwood.

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Sherwood Smith (SherwoodSmith) Margaret: check my review. I think the British people talked rather more like modern Americans, but the story itself was terrific, the central relationship wonderful. Very poignant, and I loved her way of fitting the ghost talkers into the culture of the time. It's a secret history that works.

message 9: by Electra (new)

Electra Reads | 1 comments This is a rare "did not finish" for me, as it was punishingly boring. I'm still not sure how "Regency with magic" could possibly be so boring, but it was, to say nothing of the other problems people have noted. That said, I'm looking forward to Ghost Talkers.

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