I’d like to introduce you all to Mary Robinette Kowal, fantasy author and puppeteer extraordinaire. Also, did I mention she won a Hugo Award for Best Novellette in August? And that she accepted the award dressed as Jane Austen? So yeah, that’s how awesome she is.
Up until stumbling upon her book, Shades of Milk and Honey, I had never heard of Kowal before, which was very much my loss. Her work makes waves as it takes on an era of old with a splash of magic. True to her Hugo outfit, Shades of Milk and Honey is the first novel in a fantasy series (entitled Glamouri) based upon the time period in which Jane Austen wrote. The title character, Jane Ellsington, is described as a plain twenty-eight year-old, soon-to-be spinster whose only admirable quality is that she’s a whiz with glamour.
Yes, glamour. I had heard the term used before in Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones and Kowal operates using the same idea with deeper development and attention to detail: magic that creates illusions of grandeur and decoration. But where other books fall off as Lev Grossman put it regarding his novel The Magicians, “authors aren’t entirely concerned with how magic smells. How it tastes. How it feels when you work it”. Kowal is very much concerned with the mechanics behind operating glamour and the art of learning to spin illusions in the air. Jane utilizes glamour in order to create scents or sounds or to dress up the interiority of her parent’s house. While glamour can be used to enhance personal physical appearance, it comes at physical cost and can’t be maintained for extended periods of time as it causes fainting. Though self-critical, Jane never uses the glamour for personal use and instead utilizes her powers to create artistic enhancements to her environment. Though bitter regarding her position of impending spinster-hood, she soon attracts the notice of the dashing Mr. Dunkirk and finds herself vying for his attention in the competition of her feisty and fair-faced sister, Melody.
One of Kowal’s strengths in the novel is her ability to adopt Austen-esqe language. It’s artfully done and she never drops the voice of the era, down to Jane’s calculated reactions regarding decorum and propriety. I was a huge Austen fan in high school and even took an entire semester-long class devoted to her work and I almost wish my teacher would have added this book to the syllabus. While Kowal focuses on the centres of life in Austen-time like marrying off to powerful men in order to gain a place in society, she also provides her main character with an out. Where Elizabeth Bennett educated her mind and raged firmly against the institution of marriage, Jane Ellsington exploits her talent for glamour and tries to gain some form of meaning from life that wasn’t attached to a male.
The novel has it all, a loveable yet flawed protagonist, immersive detail and language that makes me want to sit in on delicious gossip from centuries ago and some pretty heart-throbbing male players. While Mr. Dunkirk flatters Jane’s glamour talent without coming off as fake, we behold Mr. Darcy’s long lost twin brother (or at least it felt like he was), Mr. Vincent.
Mr. Vincent is an artiste, a talented glamourist and his work soon draws Jane’s attention. She yearns to understand the mechanics behind his artistry although he claims that to know the mechanisms behind art is to ruin one’s appreciation for it. As the novel proceeds, it becomes quite apparent that Mr. Vincent is intent on sharing his artistic secrets, opening up about his methods and his troubled history. It isn’t romantic love we feel Jane have for Mr. Vincent, at least initially, but unadulterated gratitude. Mr. Vincent doesn’t so much as take Jane under his wing as he does claim partnership with her. He asks her to see glamour as more than just a light show, but a possibility for creating a dual, virtual reality of smoke and mirrors.
His views are enticing even to us readers. We read to escape in a similar way that Jane and others indulge in glamour as an escape from their true-to-life fantasies. And as other characters like Melody and Mr. Dunkirk’s younger sister partake in fantasies of a romantic kind, we soon become aware that imaginations in the fantastical sense appear to be much less harmful than those conducted within reality.
That being said, the plot of the novel is predictable and some of the relationships felt underdeveloped. If you’ve read any Jane Austen, you’ll appreciate Kowal’s bow to the master and her tropes, but it definitely isn’t full of twists, nor can it be described as a page-turner. And like most Austen novels, it ends in marriage (though of whom, you’ll have to read to find out). The main merit of the work lies in Kowal’s artistry and ability to merge magic seamlessly with a storyline we’ve heard echoes of before.
3.5 out of 5 stars.