Anyway, today I'm reviewing Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal. If you haven't read it, but her name is familiar, you may know her from the Writing Excuses podcast. Yes, Shades came out in 2010, and I am a bit behind the curve ball, but let me explain. When I started listening to the Writing Excuses podcast a year ago, I started waaaaayyy back at the beginning of the series, and Kowal didn't come on to the podcast until about July of last year, by my progress. (I believe she actually came on as a permanent member back in 2011, but I cannot confirm for certain in the five minutes I spent combing their website.) I loved everything Kowal was bringing to the podcast and I knew her work would be just as wonderful. But I had excuses, so I didn't pick up her books. When a friend asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I asked for Shades, the first in the Glamourist Histories by Kowal. She kind of looked at me funny when she gave it to me. "One of my friends wondered if it was like a Christian version of Fifty Shades of Grey," she said. We laughed. It is not. Kowal herself pitches it as "Pride and Prejudice with magic," which is where today's headline comes from.
Shades is an historical fantasy/alternate history set in the regency era. Some of the characters are able to use a type of magic called "glamour," whereby they can essentially fold light to create images and other sensations. The magic has plenty of potential, as magic systems go, and Kowal explores many of these options in the following novels in the series. (I haven't gotten to them yet, but they're on the list, don't worry.)
The thing that should really strike you when you pick up this novel and start reading is the amount of work Kowal spent to make the novel feel like it was written in the regency era. It's not enough for the characters to have the sensibilities that fans of Austen will be familiar with, it's not enough that the technologies represented are historically accurate, she took the time to make the narration of the novel period-correct. Kowal said on Writing Excuses once that she compiled the entire works of Jane Austen, set them as her dictionary, and then ran spellcheck on her manuscript. Can you imagine the amount of work necessary to find the right words? Amazing. Applause for her.
Jane, the main character of Shades, will also be familiar to Austen fans. She is a young woman of middle-class means that is technically still young, but is past her "expiration date." Her younger sister is the beauty, the toast of the local countryside, and Jane is often relegated to the role of chaperone. Jane is smart and accomplished in "feminine arts," but the inclusion of magic in Kowal's world allows Jane another weapon to her arsenal, the art of glamour. Granted, glamour is considered a feminine art, but it is novel to our perception of that world, so it deserves a mention. Jane's glamourist abilities make her fearsome both in the parlor and in potentially compromising situations.
Another thing to love about Kowal's treatment of the classic Austen set-up is the "surprising yet inevitable" way she weaves her heroine's story in with the love interest. I won't give it away, because I want you to read it, but, needless to say, Jane ends up with someone we grow to love, even though we fear she may choose someone else until very close to the end.
My only critique for this story is that many of the character names will feel familiar if you are a fan of Austen. I think this is a very minor sin, however, and one that most will not even notice.
I care about historical fantasy and alternate history because I'm planning on writing one for my next novel! I'll be sharing more about it as the year goes on. As part of getting psyched up for this project, I'm going to see Mary Robinette Kowal in Houston in May when she's there for her book tour with Marie Brennan (who is on my reading list, since her Lady Trent works are also period fantasy and have to do with dragons). You can view the dates and details of their tour here.
If you are a fan of Jane Austen or other regency novels, I recommend you check out Shades and the rest of the Glamourist Histories.