Jane Austen with magic? Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

No this is not one of those mashups, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. This is an original story, but with the setting, story-line and style heavily inspired by the works of Jane Austen. Except it's set in an alternate Regency period where magic is an art generally practiced by educated women.

There are similarities between reading very old novels and reading fantasy. A novel written 200 years ago is set in a very different world from the one we see around us. Reading Jane Austen can be a bit like reading fantasy, just because I have to imagine a world which is strange to me. Historical fiction is perhaps even more fantasy-like, since it's written with a contemporary reader in mind, who needs to be gently introduced to unfamiliar surroundings.

So writing fantasy as if it were a novel from an older time is not a big step (and I don't think Mary Robinette Kowal is the first to try). Still, there are many ways it could possibly go wrong. One challenge is to make it all seem natural, to make the magic an integrated part of the story and not just an exotic element for decoration. In Shades of Milk and Honey this works very well.

Another challenge, which Kowal knows how to handle, is the cultural difference between us and our ancestors. Historical fiction sometimes suffers from the problem of a protagonist who seems to be a time traveler from the age when the story was written. This happens in fantasy, too: characters have a mindset which doesn't seem natural in the world where they are supposed to have grown up.

This is obviously a story from a world where the only important thing for a young woman is to get married. The protagonist, Jane Ellsworth, is already an old maid and convinced that she is not beautiful enough and will never marry. Being talented in music and glamour does not matter. She hopes to be the governess of her sister's children, and that's all. The lives of the Ellsworth girls seem limited from my point of view, and the possibilities few.

I braced myself for having the illusion shattered and modern sensibilities to break through, but somehow this never happened. Mary Robinette Kowal brings the story to a conclusion that can satisfy also a reader in the year 2012, while still staying within the rules she has set for her story. Magically, it works.

Sadly, I haven't read enough Jane Austen to be a good judge of how close Kowal stays to the original source of inspiration. According to a blurb on the cover also someone from the Jane Austen Centre thinks that it "could easily fit into Austen's canon, except of course for the inclusion of magic".

It's no spoiler to tell you Jane Ellsworth, of course, gets a man in the end (but I'm leaving it to you to find out who it is).

The sequel, Glamour in Glass will be out this spring. I imagine that it will have a different feeling, since Jane is already married. It's about what happens after, and it's not so obvious what direction this story will take. I think I'll want to read it just to find out what kind of opportunities there will be for a woman like her, in her age and world.