Recreational use of magic in the Regency period: Mary Robinette Kowal’s novels

For the past couple of months, I’ve been trying to get away from reading books that I think I’m reading ‘for work’, and instead read whatever I feel like reading. Let’s reread Discworld books. And then reread all the Dresden Files (still stuck on Dead Beat, sorry). And then read nothing but short stories for three weeks straight.

Sometimes a guy just wants to have a pot of tea and read some Jane Austen. Except he has also read all of actual Jane Austen books and now wants to read SFnal Jane Austen. And not like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. No zombies.

shadesThank gods for writer, puppeteer, and time traveler Mary Robinette Kowal, because she wrote the perfect book for that time when you need a delightful read about people worrying about their marriage prospects while weaving spells in the ether. I spent a couple of nice afternoons with Shades of Milk and Honey, which is delightfully Jane Austen-esque. There is a lot of concern with marriage prospects, some sibling rivalry, and scandals. Perhaps at times it’s a bit too Austen-esque. There are some familiar backstories and characters (Jane’s mother and father will remind you of the Bennetts), but if that’s what you’re looking for, the book will be quite satisfying.

What is, of course, less Austen-esque is that people use magic called glamour. Glamour is rather fascinating, and not just in its mechanics, but in its implications for societal, class, and gender roles. It’s in the same company as painting watercolors and playing pianoforte: it’s a skill for well-to-do people to learn. It also seems to be almost entirely recreational, used to enhance paintings, music performances, and room decorations. Vincent and Jane therefore stand out because they do other things with it as well (no spoilers). Vincent also stands out because glamour is considered to be a ‘womanly’ art, although at the same time no woman can possibly be a professional glamourist because women simply don’t have professions. The societal mores are those of Austen’s time.

The topic of glamour as a class and gender division tool is continued in Glamour in Glass, which I picked up immediately afterwards. The second book is where Jane really starts to see how much women are constrained in their behavior and life choices. While I could see what Kowal tried to do with the sequel, it just did not work for me quite as well as the first book. It delved so much into theorizing and experimenting with glamour in the first part, that one yearned to return to people worrying about their marriage prospects. The other problem was that it was entirely spoiled by any back blurb. The book is rather slow-paced and does not really have a lot of plot twists, which creates the problem of reader knowing what is wrong way in advance and spending half the book agonizing over slow unfolding of events.

And so Glamour in Glass and I parted our ways. I would like to say I could try book three, but my urge to read SFnal Jane Austen is gone, quite satisfied by Shades of Milk and Honey. It might return, and then I know where I should seek the cure.

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5 comments

  1. I read Glamour in Glass for book club, not realizing it was actually a follow up. I got through it fine without feeling confused or lost, but I also felt the same as you about the heavy theorizing and experimenting, which I thought took a bit away from the main story. This series and I parted ways after that too, but now I’m wondering if I should go back and pick up Shades of Milk and Honey for the more interesting sounding societal dramas.

  2. I’ve been meaning to read “The Shades of Milk and Honey” for some time now. Your post made me check whether I could find a reasonably priced (used) copy somewhere, and I did!

    I love Jane Austen’s work so I am looking forward to giving this a try.

    Is “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” any good? Would you recommend it?

      1. I think the premise is interesting. The book might be fun, if it is done well. (I frequently reread Pride and Prejudice so I am pretty familiar with the original text.)

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