I haven’t had a lot of luck with Austen retellings, not that I’ve given them much energy. I’ve given half-heart to some zombie stitching, with ok to terrible results; I have avoided smut recastings; I have thrown within pages various contemporary takes, but loved a couple too. So, when I say I enjoyed this slender Austen-riff, I am actually saying something. However – and you knew this however was coming – I can’t say Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal is more than a diversion: amiable enough, but evaporating like bubbles.
My husband and I went out to lunch today and got into a big argument about fanfiction. He was disparaging something for being fanfic, and I countered: how many thousands of Shakespeare retellings have I both consumed and enjoyed? How many Greek tragedies, folktales and the like? There are absolutely more stories in the world than the 12 or so we get told exist in some freshman writing class by some credulous idiot, but the resonant cultural motifs are a specific bunch, even if they keep changing and morphing.
Anyway, so, we made up over the idea that it’s not so much the concept of fanfic that he had a problem with, but the fact that the fanfic that was he subject of the argument corrected none of the problems of the source material, and, in fact, introduced more than a couple more. Fifty Shades of Grey is pretty much garbage, not because it’s Twilight fanfic, but because it’s garbage. I don’t love Twilight, while I respect its resonance, but I feel like a fanfic that misses all the inherent silliness of vegetarian vampire chastity porn is a freaking disaster. Twilight works because Bella gets to marry Jesus, not Mark Zuckerberg.
And, quick aside: I’m not using the term fanfic with any rigor here, or as a knee-jerk indicator of poor quality. And, now that I think about it, the term seems to be used dismissively of women’s fiction more often than of stuff written by men, so it’s possible I’m wrong-footing this whole review by starting with a discussion of the term. Shades of Milk and Honey is not fanfic in any way. Sure, the plot probably owes to Pride and Prejudice some, but then so many plots do; it is firmly set as a trope across multiple genres. It is set in Regency England, and Austen is probably the best known chronicler of that period, but it’s not like she invented Regency England. Moreover, it’s entirely possible this owes more to something like The Scarlet Pimpernel or Georgette Heyer over Austen, so forget I ever said anything. Jfc, I need to get it together.
Jane and Melody Ellsworth are rivalrous sisters whose parents are roughly Mr & Mrs Bennet, but softer. Mrs Ellsworth still has the vapours, but Mr Ellsworth isn’t an entailed dick. Melody is pretty-but-dumb and Jane is talented-but-plain. While the world is decidedly Regency England, there is this tiny bit of magic in the mix – glamour – which is to be our shifting paranormal lens on the rigid gender divisions of that society. Glamour is understood to be a woman’s hobby – good for cosmetic reasons and not much else – but there’s a hot, grouchy male glamourist with whom Jane is secretly smitten. (Secret even from herself, but seriously dude.)
The whole concept of glamour is a ripe metaphor that unfortunately isn’t explored very deeply. It solves some issues with the Regency novel – aha, performing glamour is why all the ladies are swooning – but it has close to zero impact on Regency England or any of the characters. Everyone dismisses the wartime applications – the Napoleonic wars are unfolding, the way they do – but glamour obviously has an impact on a confusingly written dueling sequence near the end. Glamour can record conversations for crying out loud! That absolutely could be a thing with spycraft, at the very least!
I did appreciate the ways Jane and glamourist dude talked about the craft of art, and I even marked a passage in the now-lost book where glamourist dude growls at Jane for observing the ways he built a specific illusion. The ways Jane takes that to heart and tries simply to experience the illusion without a critical eye felt … felt like something about all this arguing I was doing about retellings with my husband. But, unfortunately, I admired the craft here much more than I enjoyed its heart.
Shades of Milk and Honey does a very, very good job of aping the craft of a Regency novel – it is set beautifully, with attention to detail and character. But it is not actually a Regency novel, and it lacks the snap of Austen’s often cutting observations about the culture she lived in. As a reader, I can only access that snap in Austen’s works through historical research, which makes the cuts less immediate; a joke explained is less funny than a joke that punches known knowledge. Which might be the lack in Shades of Milk and Honey: Kowal doesn’t cut anything about Regency England, which would be a weird thing to do anyway, but then she also doesn’t necessarily say anything about the here-and-now?
I don’t actually appreciate the dichotomy between smart-but-plain and pretty-but-dumb all that much, because I think it’s a boring and unrealistic binary, so I think the expression here of that tension is unrewarding. And unrewarding in a way that Austen never hits. Elizabeth is not as beautiful as her sister Jane, but that’s not really a thing, and, in general, Austen avoids all but the tersest of physical descriptions. Elizabeth is said to have fine eyes and dark hair and not much else. So I’m in a place where novels written 200 years ago felt more harshly critical of their societies than ones written in the last decade, which is the weirdest.
The Nebula nominee I read just previous to this, Ironskin, also recasts the woman-penned 19th Century novel Jane Eyre as to be about looks and not much else, and I wonder what is up with this contemporary attention to the superficial to the exclusion of, well, anything else. Shades of Milk and Honey is a well written novel, unlike Ironskin, but it is still strange that these novels are being lauded as genre stand-outs. Admitting, of course, that I haven’t actually read the sequel here, which is the one up against Ironskin. Still, it is an oddment that glamour is more ornament than architecture, more diversion than statement. I enjoyed being diverted, but I can’t say much else about it.
Crossed fingers for Glamour in Glass, but…