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Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

This takes us into the realm of the mashup. Frankly, this is not one of the better new words since the original meaning of the verb to “mash” is, with an appropriate degree of violence, to pulp, crush or otherwise destroy the texture of boiled vegetables, fruit, spices, etc. I grew up eating mashed potatoes and later enjoyed cider made from mashed and fermented apples. The idea is to take source material in one form and then convert it into something quite different by physical and/or chemical processes. Yet, as first applied to music and now writing, the technique is somewhat different. It is a blending of previously separate elements to produce a version in which the sources are recognisable, but transformed by being put together. In artistic terms, it is a type of collage.

Let’s take as an example Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith. The object of the exercise is to leave much of the original Austen text in place but add new elements from different genres. In theory, this is supposed to go beyond satire, parody or pastiche, producing an alternate history in which Regency England is overrun by zombies. It is not so much mashing up the original text, as creating a bandwagon new genre in which plagues of vampires, werewolves, mummies or other disreputable creatures are released into the literary wilds. I confess to being less than delighted by this shotgun marriage between what we may now call historical romance and more modern tropes. I do my best to be open-minded and am not against the idea in principle. There are some excellent historical fantasies in which magic and supernatural elements have been seamlessly blended into alternate histories of the world. But I confess to reading these mashup books with a health scepticism. You don’t have to pretend to be Austen, a Bontë, or some other luminary to write a good book. Put another way, parroting a plot from a classic novel cannot save an indifferent piece of writing.

All of which brings us to Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal. Here we are in Austen territory again. This is a classic Austen set-up with two daughters, a neurotic mother and concerned father as landed gentry stuck out in the West country. The language is reasonably well done and the social context is fairly convincing. The production of the physical book also helps. For once, TOR has broken with convention and has the lead page in each chapter with an old font and period setting, while the pages are not trimmed to produce the usual perfect edges. So we start off with a good look and feel.

I confess to initial feelings of doom and gloom as the opening passages turn into longer passages with little more than a fairly uninspiring pastiche of Austen. But, slowly, we also find ourselves introduced to a well-developed system of magic. This is a reimagining of the idea of ectoplasm — a visible substance thought to be produced by a medium during a trace. Kowal’s version of this phenomenon is drawn from the aether, taking on a physical appearance for the eye to see or holding sounds or melodies for the ear to hear. On a social level, it is up there with female skills such as playing the piano, singing or generally being decorative. It can hide blemishes of the skin and produce a more elegant dress for a social event. In a professional context, where men may be adjudged the masters, it can transform a room from a level of impoverished gentility to something spectacular. More importantly, such transformations persist over quite long periods of time so the less well-to-do can conceal their straightened circumstances with a little glamour.

There are immediate military applications with techniques that can conceal land-based defences, gun emplacements or even small numbers of troops or cavalry. This would allow the element of surprise as enemies innocently approach. It would be more difficult at sea because ships move around a little too much in the swell to remain effectively hidden for longer periods of time. Presumably, we will get into this in the second volume titled Glamour in Glass. As it is, we are left with the redoubtable female amateur meeting the professional male in an entirely social context. He considers her more than annoying because, with so little effort, she can deconstruct his methods and reproduce the effects. She considers him prickly and antisocial because he seems to reject the usual etiquette of the day.

On balance, I judge the whole to be reasonably successful. The magic of the glamour is innovative and the plot is twisted to produce an interesting climax in which all that has been learned is given a chance for practical application. Although it does rather lack humour and focuses too much on jealousies for my taste, this is not a mere Austen pastiche. It goes into new territory for a Regency romance by allowing a vengeful brother to seek personal satisfaction at the expense of the lothario who has trifled with his sister’s affections. More usually, these cads are bought off to save the family’s reputation. It also has some female empowerment with our heroine pulled from a sheltered life and encouraged to experience a more passionate way of seeing the world. So despite my initial scepticism, I am sufficiently interested to see how the magic system is developed, and have ordered the next book.

For the record, this book is one of the 2010 Nebula Awards Nominations. It’s also a finalist in the 2011 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.

For reviews of the sequels, see:
Glamour in Glass
Valour and Vanity
Without a Summer.

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  1. June 11, 2014 at 2:36 am

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