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19 February 2016 @ 08:39 pm
Shades of Milk and Honey  
Mary Robinette Kowal's Jane Austen-esque fantasy stories get quite widely referenced (at least in the online places I tend to hang out). I've nothing against the concept of Regency-based fantasy - in fact I'm a fan in general of non-medieval fantasy. However, I'll admit I entered this with a certain scepticism about Jane Austen-esque fantasy. Jane Austen was poking gentle fun at a society with which she was deeply familiar and which no longer exists. I couldn't quite see how a modern author could pull that off, even with the addition of fantasy elements.

Jane is the elder, less pretty, sister in a fairly typical Jane Austen family consisting of a concerned father (concerned mostly about finding good marriages for his daughters), a silly mother and a flighty younger daughter. She is also an accomplished glamourist which is the fantastical element of the world. It is, as the name implies, the art of illusion and, as described, is a mixture of clothwork and painting and therefore a suitable accomplishment for a young woman.

The tale then follows a fairly typical Jane Austen course of balls, visits and chance encounters in which Jane finds herself a suitable husband while rescuing her sister from the attentions of a bounder and a cad. The rescue itself, it must be said, involves considerably more drama than Austen ever employed (where a young girl running off in a storm is about as exciting as it gets). Here we have a horse chase across the countryside, pistols at dawn (or at least mid-afternoon) and a villain unafraid to commit murder and frame our heroine for it.

The story was a lot better than I had feared. In particular it avoided the trap of putting modern ideas of feminism and classism in the mouths of its protagonists instead focusing on the kind of criticism Austen applied herself. However, I think one of the perils of trying to ape Austen without being as familiar as she was with 18th Century polite society is that the only targets one really understands well-enough to make fun of are those Austen made fun of herself. I didn't feel there was anything new in the characters or their failings.

The introduction of glamour ought to have changed things up a little, and it is important both to the romance and to the climax. However, it is basically another art form, like music or painting, and so appears to have had little or no effect on the technology or culture. I appreciated the idea of a fantasy world in which the magic is minor and not particularly powerful and, like Frostflower and Windbourne, I appreciated that this was a story with a local focus rather than something involving dark lords and the affairs of princes. But still, at the end of the day, the fantasy element seemed a little pointless somehow.

This book could easily have been terrible. Fortunately Kowal has clearly extensively researched the 18th century, has a deft hand at reproducing Jane Austen's style and has avoided the trap of imposing modern views on her characters. Still, I really can't see the point of poking gentle fun at a society 200 years past when it has already been done to perfection by someone in that society itself*. I think, the bottom line is, that if I want to read Jane Austen, I'll read Jane Austen and even with the introduction of fantasy elements Shades of Milk and Honey isn't bringing enough new to the table to make me really see the point of it.

Maybe the problem is just that I'm too fond of Austen. I don't want to read derivative works, even good derivative works, because I don't really perceive any need for it.

* Yes, I realise said society is closely related to our own and many of the human failings Austen highlights are universal, but nevertheless her stories are very much of their time and place** and Kowal is really not trying to push the envelope and draw out any parallels to modern times that one couldn't infer from reading Austen straight.

** And yes, there have been several very successful modern retellings of Austen's stories (many of which I rate highly), but I would argue that all of them stumble in places when trying to reframe certain crises in modern terms.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/185018.html.
louisedennis: bookslouisedennis on February 22nd, 2016 04:59 pm (UTC)
Well a tank might have enlivened matters!
a_cubeda_cubed on February 20th, 2016 07:19 am (UTC)
Have you tried Wrede and Stevermeyer's "Sorcery and Cecilia" (it also has two sequels). That was my first exposure to this kind of thing. They do it as an epistolary novel and according to their afterword never discussed the plot until after all the letters were written, and even then they only did a modest amount of editing, they claim.
Susanlil_shepherd on February 20th, 2016 12:03 pm (UTC)
I do not like Regency romance (i.e. people like Heyer.) I am not terribly keen on Romantic fantasy... but I adore the 'Sorcery and Cecelia' series. (First book brilliant, second not as good, third better than second.)

On the other hand, I do love Bujold's 'A Civil Campaign' and Kushner's 'Swordspoint' both of which riff of Regency romance, among many other things. And, to be honest, some of the best riffs on Jane Austen are actually written in the detective police procedural genre - Reginald Hill's 'Pictures of Perfection' and 'A Cure for all Diseases' which is a sort of modern version of the unfinished 'Sanditon'.
louisedennis: bookslouisedennis on February 22nd, 2016 11:14 am (UTC)
I've never read any Heyer though I have had it variously recommended to me (albeit by people who clearly feel one should pick and choose to an extent).

My favourite Jane Austen retelling is actually a Blakes' 7 AU fanfic which I think manages the reframing of the whole Lydia/Wickham elopement in a really clever way and the mapping of Avon onto Darcy and Blake onto Lizzie Bennett is also a clever way of looking at the characters. But even it struggles a bit in presenting Gauda Prime as this functioning independent planet with terribly formal social mores.
louisedennis: bookslouisedennis on February 22nd, 2016 11:10 am (UTC)
I've added it to the Wish List. I have actually managed to make some inroads into the to read pile in the past few months, so it is possible that the wish list will receive more attention this year than it has in the past!