Mary Robinette Kowal’s debut fantasy novel paints an alternate setting à la Jane Austen’s Regency England (though this is definitely not a P & P spin-off), in which young accomplished ladies coming of age and out into society must not only develop skills with such things as music, proper deportment, and polite conversation. They also have access to the mystical ether with which they create glamour to enhance their domestic environment with scenic illusions. Young ladies learn how to design, form, and shape the ether’s strands into natural scenes such as a forest glen complete with a bubbling brook, fluttering birds with their songs, and scented flowers in bloom. Jane, the main character, happens to possess a rather advanced talent as a glamourist. Despite her plain-Jane looks, her intellect and skill with the ether as well as other visual arts attracts the attention of famed professional glamourist David Vincent, who is hired by Jane’s wealthy neighbor to create glamour as a means for impressing her prominent guests. Jane’s family is fortunate that she can use glamour to give their home a far better appearance than they could normally afford.
Adventure and intrigue enter the plots of Kowal’s fantasy series (yes, the first sequel, Glamour in Glass, is already in with two more titles coming in 2013-2014) when Vincent and Jane combine their talents, ordinarily reserved for domestic arts and the enhancement of one’s social status, to outwit criminals and defeat armed bandits. Romance is in the picture as well, but the relationship between Jane and Vincent builds gradually as their respect for each other is hard-earned; romance doesn’t dominate the story but infuses it with enough tenderness to appeal to romantic suspense fans.
Other than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, I’ve not read very much fantasy fiction. This is the first series that has really captured my interest, and I’m quite taken with the characters, the adventure, and the fact that its setting and atmosphere are well-grounded in historical realism. Kowal causes the magic to seem a rather natural element of that time, changing very little else about the culture.
Even though Shades of Milk and Honey is her first novel, Mary Robinette Kowal is no beginning writer, having won the 2008 Campbell Award for Best New Writer and the 2011 Hugo Award for her short story titled “For Want of a Nail.” I think it’s neat that she also happens to be an accomplished professional puppeteer!