Shades of Milk and Honey has been compared to Pride and Prejudice. It may shock you, dear readers, but I’ve never actually read Jane Austen’s most famous work. (I’ve seen a number of media adaptations, but the book remains a blank slate to me.) So how Kowal’s work relates to its most obvious influence is beyond my knowledge...
Which leaves me free to discuss the first two books in Kowal’s series in their own right, as novels which attempt to mix fantasy, history, and the element of romance.*
*I’m not going to talk about the third book, Without a Summer. Its treatment of Irishness and Catholicism during the early 19th century bounced me right out less than halfway through. Contextual historical implausibility bothers me, and I’d rather talk from my happy place in this column than gripe. But I shan’t let Without a Summer alter my opinions of the first two books.
Shades of Milk and Honey hews closely to the Austenite ideal, at least in setup and structure. Jane is the plain elder daughter of a respectable but not wealthy family, the Ellsworths. She has a talent for glamour—magic. But magic here is not a vast or terrible mystery, but rather a branch of the arts—for the most part, the decorative arts. But she has had no luck in finding a respectable suitor: her younger sister Melody has the family’s share of beauty—despite not having any talent with glamour. Ellsworth mère seizes on the social whirl of new neighbours to try and set her daughters up, but Jane ends up more interested in surly, taciturn Mr. Vincent, the artist hired to create a glamour for said neighbour’s ballroom. Family elopements, potential scandal, and a meeting of minds combine to leave the reader with a pleasantly happy ending.
Glamour in Glass is somewhat different, in that Jane and Vincent are now happily married. The novel opens with dinner with the Prince Regent, proceeds with a honeymoon visit to one of Vincent’s colleagues in Belgium, and culminates with an alternate version of Waterloo. In Belgium, Jane and Vincent conduct experiments in glamour, working with a glassblower to see if glamour can be produced in glass. But Vincent is keeping secrets from Jane; Belgium begins to roil with royalists and Napoleon’s adherents, and she discovers that he has been acting as a spy. When Napoleon’s troops make off with Vincent—not for his spying, but because he has invented a glamour to bend light and conceal people from view—Jane, now pregnant and unable to perform glamour herself, disguises herself as a man and sets off to the rescue.
These novels exist in the tradition of the romance. In many ways, they are very safe books: there is no cutting undertone of social critique, here, only a light, gentle insistence on Jane’s capabilities and her ability to equal Vincent in conversation and in glamour. In Glamour in Glass, Jane can be read as an exceptional woman, but she is far from the only woman in these novels’ pages, and they come in a variety of types. The language is self-consciously archaising, imitating to a degree—although thankfully to a degree less torturous to the modern ear—the prose of the late 18th and early 19th century. They are mild books, not challenging to the preconceptions or to the emotions. Which makes them the perfect chaser after reading a novel that ripped your heart in two (Greg Rucka, I’m looking at you) or after putting away some dense academic prose.
What do you guys think?