THRIFTY SHADES OF JANE AUSTEN
A derivative tale of an unappreciated spinster who unexpectedly finds love with someone who can appreciate her magical talents.
Shades Of Milk And Honey
(Glamourist Histories, Book 1)
Mary Robinette Kowal
Genre: Alternate History, Historical Fantasy
Format: Paperback, 272 Pages
Date: 3rd October 2013 (First Published 2010)
Some authors, whether knowingly or unknowingly, wear their influences on their sleeves. It is often possible to read the work of any given writer then accurately deduce who and what has influenced the story. Anybody who reads Mary Robinette Kowal’s novel, Shades Of Milk And Honey, the first book of the Glamourist Histories series, won’t need to guess the who and the what that provided the inspiration for her writing. She unabashedly embraces her fondness for Regency era literature in general, and her love of Jane Austen in particular. In fact, if you strip away the book’s fantasy element, Shades Of Milk And Honey could very well have been authored by Austen herself.
It’s hard to understand why female authors, or the female readers who are presumably the target audience for a book such as this, like to romanticise a period of history in which women were obliged to live very restricted lives. Where a woman could have no aspiration greater than to secure a good marriage; more for the sake of her family than for her own happiness. Nonetheless, Shades Of Milk And Honey is set in early nineteenth century England, and adheres to many of the familiar conventions of Regency era literature.
The protagonist, Jane Ellsworth, is in many ways the archetypal Regency heroine; a single woman who believes (as do the rest of her family), that she is fated to remain a spinster on the unmarried scrapheap even though she is only in her twenties. She is insecure about her plain looks, while harbouring envious feelings toward her teenage sister who is known for her stunning beauty and numerous suitors. Yet despite the lack of hope about her marriage prospects, Jane pines after one of her sister’s suitors who is a long time friend of the Ellsworth family, even though she has no faith that her non-physical attributes will earn his affections; or anyone else’s for that matter.
There isn’t a great deal to say about the book’s narrative. It is a short and simple story of a young woman who prioritises looking for love, while also being mindful of protecting the family honour, over her professional ambitions; a tale rendered all too predictable by its adherence to its Regency tropes. It wouldn’t really be a spoiler to point out that the man who Jane lusts after proves to be unworthy of her; that her true soulmate is right under her nose but it takes her an age to realise it on account of him appearing to be such a dick when they initially become acquainted. There is little in the way of originality in how the story ultimately progresses, although it must be said that Kowal does succeed in capturing the essence of the time period very well; no doubt the result of diligent research on her part. The setting feels genuinely authentic without the writing being too antiquated for contemporary readers.
The one genuinely interesting aspect of the book, which prevents it from being a conventional Regency romance novel, comes courtesy of its fantasy component. Kowal has infused her story with magic and a very creative magic system. In this alternate reality setting a form of magic known as Glamour is a real and accepted phenomena. Jane is a skilled Glamourist, despite her lack of formal training, which means she is able to conjure elaborate visual illusions. Glamourists are viewed by society in much the same way as traditional artists. The more adept and creative Glamourists can and do become highly regarded for their craft; at least that is the case for the male ones. They can acquire wealthy patrons, have their work exhibited, as well as embark on tours.
Being a woman Jane is both reluctant to pursue the vocation of a Glamourist, or to even acknowledge and accept just how accomplished she is in the use of Glamour. Which isn’t particularly surprising as she receives little in the way of encouragement. The author’s descriptions of Jane’s use of her Glamour are not only clever and well conceived, they are actually rather enjoyable to read too.
Speaking of the book’s heroine, Jane Ellsworth is a surprisingly likeable character. Any initial concerns that she would be an insufferable, whiny, self-pitying annoyance are very quickly dispelled. Over the course of the story she proves herself to be very much a woman of substance. It is often hard to fathom why she is considered to be such a poor prospect for marriage. She has many praiseworthy, appealing attributes: She is patient, even with those who don’t deserve such consideration, though she won’t allow others to simply walk all over her; she has an endearing humility which prevents her from blowing her own trumpet, choosing instead to downplay her abilities and accomplishments; she is caring and considerate, placing the well being of others over her own; and she is a determined and courageous woman with an admirable inner strength.
But such qualities in a woman, apparently, are not appreciated by most men who would rather be with a woman who is nice to look at, and nothing else. Personally, I wish I could meet someone like Jane Ellsworth.
With all that said and done, Shades Of Milk And Honey is by no means a great work of literature destined to forge a legacy akin to the works of Austen or the Bronte Sisters. It is a very derivative story, but one that is a quick and uncomplicated read that can be finished within half a day. Presumably it will be enjoyed more by a female readership that likes the conceit of inadvertently finding love while looking for it in the wrong place. If there is any lesson prospective male readers can take away from the book, it’s that the fortunate man is he who chooses the woman of substance over the shallow and docile pretty face.
Telling it like it is. Giving you honest and balanced, spoiler free reviews. Completely devoid of irrational fanboyism, or shameless astroturfing.