Shades of Milk and Honey – Mary Robinette Kowal

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As a fan of the Writing Excuses podcast, I felt it was incumbent upon me to branch out beyond Brandon Sanderson, and the Shadows Beneath anthology provided ample opportunity to read the writings of the rest of the crew: Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler.

Kowal’s story in that anthology, A Fire in the Heavens, is wonderful, fascinating, and original. Really, you’ve got to read it. A tremendous story. Anyway, between that, her work on Writing Excuses, and The Lady Astronaut of Mars (another short of hers I fell in love with), I knew I had to read her series, the Glamourist Histories. That series has a straightforward elevator pitch: Jane Austen with magic.

So when she tweeted that Shades of Milk and Honey, the first book in the Glamourist Histories, was available for Kindle for $1.99, I jumped into it right away.

I had never read any regency romances, but did have a childhood steeped in British costume dramas, I slipped into the setting with ease. In all fairness, that’s probably due to Kowal’s facility with making her reader comfortable in a milieu, be it Mars, a tidally-locked planet, or regency England, in the home of Jane Ellsworth, a young lady of “un-marriageable” quality save for her prodigious skill as a Glamourist.

This is my favorite element of Kowal’s world: there’s magic, yes, but the magic is almost passive. It’s called Glamour, and its purpose (at least as defined in 99% of Shades of Milk and Honey,) is aesthetic. It is the art of reaching into the ether and manipulating strands of whatever etheric energy lay therein to generate sensory experiences, or to enhance existing experiences. It’s practiced like any of the other arts, like music and painting, and the social benefits and challenges associated with those artistic skills extend neatly to the practice of Glamour.

Here’s the thing: I loved reading Shades of Milk and Honey for a number of reasons. The writing was great — it took a bit to get used to the different spellings and stilted, awkward interactions of the characters, which were absolutely necessary and well executed — the action, such as it was, was entertaining and sufficiently dramatic, and the characters were dynamic and largely likable, if often frustrating. I found myself rooting for Jane from the first page.

The real reason I loved this book, though, was the magic. In so much of genre fiction (Sci-Fi and Fantasy), the magic (or technology) is active, in that it is either the prime mover, or the core of the story, or it’s the mystery that needs to be solved, and it’s somehow destructive or creative. In Shades, we experience a magic that is purely illusion, and used as casual entertainment for the characters. In many ways, the story is driven by the magic, but it is never about the magic.

It was a breath of fresh air, and gave me some food for thought regarding my own attempts at writing genre fiction. I want exciting, vibrant, beautiful magic, as do many other writers and readers. The catch is to not let it completely dictate the course of your story. Reading this novel gave me a great idea for a writing prompt: take a look at your magic, whatever it may be, and take the fangs off of it. Don’t necessarily make it powerless, but see what happens when it’s not all there is to your world.

Thanks, Mary, for the excellent read. Can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

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