Thursday, August 1, 2013

Shades of Milk and Honey

Rating: 3 stars
Length: Compact (320 pages)
Publication: August 3, 2010 from Tor Books
Premise: Jane Ellsworth has resigned herself to spinsterhood and lives in the shadow of her younger sister Melody. Despite Jane's remarkable skill with glamour, her future seems set. When Melody's desires and the introduction of several new gentlemen to the neighborhood upset the regular turn of her life, however, she finds herself forced to the center of events.
Warnings: none
Recommendation: If you're looking for Jane Austen with a light dusting of magic, this is your cup of tea. If not, you may want to pass it up-- it has less in the way of direct magic than almost any other fantasy I've reviewed.

What makes this one charming:

Kowal set out here to write a novel in the style of Jane Austen, and on that score the book succeeds admirably: the social norms and scope of the book work entirely in the style of the time, from the social norms requiring young ladies to be chaperoned to the gossipy nature of this small town. Some of the older spellings like "chuse" push the artifice a little too far, but for the most part the dialogue style and the ways that people consider problems read as realistic for this time period, which differs from the mundane Regency era only in the presence of glamour. It seems like illusion at first but ends up going further-- properly constructed folds of glamour can create light or darkness, visuals, temperature changes, music, scent, or even minor sensations like wind. It is practiced mostly by women and is viewed as a womanly accomplishment in much the same way as skill in music or dancing or flower arranging. Some men (including the character of Mr. Vincent) practice the skill as high art and draw patrons, while other master simpler folds and hire themselves out as things like cold-mongers to keep the food chilled at wealthy houses. Seeing a more detailed breakdown of how this training is passed along would be interesting, but it's implied that glamour instructors can be either men or women-- female teachers are most often governesses while male teachers are subject-specific tutors, which helps this profession blend more smoothly with the tone of the times.

The magic itself works because it feels real, with convincing rules and very real risks. Using too much glamour in a short time can send the body into shock ending in brain damage or death, but that doesn't stop people from pushing their own limits. One woman of the Ellsworths' acquaintance uses glamour to disguise part of her face, but the effort leads her to fainting, and Mr. Vincent drives himself too hard for the sake of the art that secures him a living. It may be a creative and idle pursuit, unsuitable for military uses because most folds break when they are moved, but it has definite rules and an established cost that the main characters can't dodge because they're special in some way. That, above almost anything else, is necessary to making any magic system work. The technical design of the system adds one layer of reality, and it's cemented by the beautiful imagery, particularly of the various tableaux that glamourists are called upon to perform. Kowal has just the right touch with detail, evoking the experience of seeing fairy tales come to life or wandering through a starlit indoor forest. These sequences do the heavy lifting of bringing fantasy into the world, and glamour is put to such good uses near the climax of the book that it's frustrating to realize that it's used for so little but decoration earlier in the book.

Straight-up love stories tend to bore me, though I acknowledge that that's a matter of taste, but Jane's own journey manages to work because it's about the art she practices and the way she sees the world. She has a predictable-but-decent struggle with seeing her glamour art as a matter of pure technique and theory instead of putting emotion into it, and elevates herself to new heights when she creates glamour from the roots of her emotions. When she falls in love with the fairly obvious figure, it's because they share an interest and respect for glamour and have the potential to learn from each other, not because he's smolderingly attractive or spends his spare time stalking her. One of the advantages of his low-action style is that the relationship ends up being a meeting of minds, sparked by a misunderstanding and a few fights before they manage to listen to form a truce. They don't discuss their feelings face-to-face, really, but the affection they have for each other is obvious in actions and personal records-- it would have been easy to go overboard with big dramatic declarations of love, but this just works in a way that I wish more books could figure out how to emulate.

The red pen:

Shades of Milk and Honey carries some of Austen's original charm and nails the comedy of manners tone, but there's just not enough substance here to make it memorable, in part because the social commentary and humor threaded through Austen's work seems absent here. The love story works, but I keep seeing the series in the fantasy section, and it's....a love story with a light full-of-plot-holes mystery element and a good magic system that doesn't get the use that it could. The ending could have worked, but the central conceit of the book collapses with the knowledge that secret engagements weren't remotely common-- in that era, banns had to be read at the church for three consecutive Sundays. If you wanted to get married faster than that, you needed to run off to Scotland (and celebrate your marriage through a priest at the Fleet Prison) or Ireland or the Continent. And yet, the heroine gets married a week after she receives a proposal, with no one batting an eye. The main....I hesitate to use the word villain, since he's the moral equivalent of dingy socks, but he's secretly engaged to multiple women, one of whom is of high social standing and engaged with her mother's approval, so it makes no sense that it's able to stay a secret when everyone involved is supposedly proud of the match. With so few characters and potential motives, any shakiness at all destabilizes the dramatic arc, and this is rather a large historical hole. Other pieces skip forward, suggesting that two characters have met and are suddenly best friends, or that two had a rapport but for some reason just don't talk to each other because it might be inconvenient for the plot, and that makes for choppy pacing. 

This problem only gets worse when the narrative narrows its focus to individual character motivations and pieces of backstory. When the thoughts have been flowing from Jane's head in a steady way for chapters on end and then a clump of "it is no wonder that she at once began making her excuses" exposition falls in, it doesn't work because the wry-observer style so clear in Pride and Prejudice is an intermittent trickle here. Overt narrative voices from an outside source are an in-or-out proposition in that they work best when they start early and stay strong at regular intervals (think the grandfather in The Princess Pride Movie) as a framing device or just thread through as the sole or primary way of making comments on the world. Injecting it as a way of moving the focus from Jane's own view to making the reader feel sympathy for her by explaining what a rough day she's having grates hard, and it happens just often enough to distract from the flow of the story. Removing all instances of that voice or making it part of almost every page would work, but seeing it just once every few chapters just seems clunky.

There's not a main arc so much as several strands getting roughly equal time, and a few of the main ones are either burdened with plot holes or just don't carry much interest. The largest problem spot is probably Melody, Jane's younger sister. We learn not very far into the story that although Melody is beautiful and social graces come easily to her, she feels insecure about her meager talents with glamour when compared to Jane and thinks that a pretty face won't be enough to bring her love. This could have been a good dynamic, especially since Jane offers to teach Melody more glamour at one point, but the idea of those lessons drops almost immediately and Melody spends most of the book behaving like a spoiled child. She wants to be the center of attention at every turn, going so far as to flounce off to her room and pout when a man wants to see Jane's glamour paired with music, and even inserts herself into conversations that Jane is having (or friendships that Jane is forming) in order to edge Jane to the fringes of the interaction. This might work if the girls were in their early teens, or if Melody was supposed to be a villain of sorts, but she's supposed to retain some measure of sympathy and simply doesn't. She's petty and casually cruel, which makes it difficult to care what happens to her. 

The verdict: Mary Robinette Kowal set out to create a novel in the style of Jane Austen (who is first in the acknowledgement section), and in that she largely succeeded, but this doesnt quite hit the best points of either of its potential genre homes. Shades of Milk and Honey lacks Austen's touch of satire and awareness of when the characters are being ridiculous, and it doesn't go far enough with the glamour to really make it feel as though that magic is essential to the plot and the world. It was a nice way to spend an afternoon, but I have no urgent desire to read the rest of the series.

Prospects: This is the first book in the Glamourist Histories. The series continues with Glamour in Glass and Without a Summer, which came out this April.

Enjoyed this? Try:
~Gail Carriger's Soulless features a protagonist of similar circumstances: like Jane, Alexia is also twenty-eight and resigned to her lack of marriage prospects. Soulless, however, is more willing to play fast and loose with history and throw in more dramatic pieces of magic, and that allows it to work with higher stakes and tighter pacing. 
~All Men of Genius is a similar experiment in the style of Oscar Wilde with hints of Shakespeare, and it flows better because it's willing to be steampunk and mystery and gender-disguised romance and a bit of action all at once-- it's a glorious piece of chaos that partakes of its source material without allowing itself to be caged by the boundaries of that material. 

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