March 03, 2011

BOOKS: Shades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal

Here we have a Jane Austen pastiche with a touch of magic thrown in. There's just enough of it to qualify this as fantasy, and it is one of the nominees for the Nebula Award this year. It's not particularly impressive magic, mind you, but through "manipulating the glamour" -- playing with folds in space and light -- practitioners are able to create visual illusions.

The plot is standard Austen: Jane is a talented glamourist, a desirable skill in a lady, but alas, she is rather plain, and at the ripe old age of 28, has resigned herself to spinsterhood. Her only hope now for a comfortable life after her parents die is to see Melody (her younger, prettier sister) married well, hopefully to a man who will invite her into their home to serve as unpaid governess to Melody's children.

(A friend of fine points out that "Melody" is not exactly a run-of-the-mill Regency name. Given that the story isn't really set in our Regency, I give Kowal a bit more leeway for such anachronisms.)

There are, of course, several men on the scene as possible suitors for the sisters -- the charming Mr. Dunkirk, the dashing Captain Robertson, the taciturn Mr. Vincent (the most gifted glamourist Jane has ever encountered) -- and it should pose no serious challenge to the decidated Austenite to sort out which man Jane will wind up with. (You could almost do it from those character descriptions, I suspect.)

As such things go, this is nicely done. Kowal is particularly good at capturing the flavor of Austen's prose in a way that doesn't leave the modern reader feeling quite so bogged down as she might when facing the real thing. The opening paragraph gives you a good sense of her faux-Austen style:
The Ellsworths of Long Parkmead had the regard of their neighbours in every respect. The Honourable Charles Ellsworth, though a second son, through the generosity of his father had been entrusted with an estate in the neighbourhood of Dorchester. It was well appointed and used only enough glamour to enhance its natural grace, without overlaying so much illusion as to be tasteless. His only regret, for the estate was a fine one, was that it was entailed, and as he had only two daughters, his elder brother's son stood next in line to inherit it. Knowing that, he took pains to set aside some of his income each annum for the provision of his daughters.
It's a pleasant lightweight read, and those who are fonder of Austen than I am may well find it to be more than that.

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