Title: Shades of Milk and Honey, Glamour in Glass & Without a Summer
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Series: Glamourist Histories
Published: 2010 to 2013 by Tor Books
Status: First reading, November 11 – 13
Genre: Gaslight fantasy, regency era, historical fantasy, alternate history, fantasy of manners
I read all 3 books in this series in 3 days so I thought I might as well review them in one post.
Somehow these books managed to be page-turns despite the fact that nothing much happened the first 70 % of the first book. It kept me up half the night as well. I think the reason the books really works despite the first book’s lack of anything like a plot throughout most of the book, is the fact that it is very well written, researched and gives you a view into the world of 1815 society, that feels so genuine. In my notes I more than once remarked on how very very small the world of the women was. Both in a physical sense and what they were allowed to take interest in. I think 80% of the conversations in the first book is about the weather, fashion or general gossip – not even very interesting gossip.
Small talk followed, detailing the weather, then the quality of the tea which the butler brought as well as praise of the china it was served in, which was an exquisite example of Delft bone china.
They live in a tiny world that is to a large extend consist of their family and the opinion of their peers. The women do not really serve any purpose unless they are the head of their household. Their purpose is to get married and to make life around them as comfortable as possible. They are not suppose to have opinions about more important than fashion or art. They are decorative and artful. Which is reflected in the magic system of this world, which is glamour – aka. illusions, which is considered a decorative women’s art along with needlework and piano playing. It is stationary and is therefor not really useful for much of anything practical but is used as decoration by the upper classes.
Especially the first book is inspired by Jane Austen (our protagonist is even named Jane) and Kowal has said that she very much aimed to write a fantasy novel that felt like an Austen book. Because of this the first book’s plot is of course a romance. It has forbidden love, untrustworthy men and quite a bit of drama. But if you asked me to tell you what the story is about, I would have to say family and friendship. Jane has complicated and very real relationships with her sister and the rest of her family as well as a much younger female friend, whom she also treats very much as younger sister. Her relationship with her younger sister is quite complicated and is a thread that is picked up again in the third book where it also plays a major part. It feels very real, but it also underlines how every small the women’s world is. Jane and her sister are constantly jealous of each other, fighting over men and their parent’s favour in the way of much younger siblings because they are in such a small protected world. They do deeply love each other but they also fight constantly in that very polite British fashion that seems to be so typical of the era.
One of the themes in the books is also the lack of outlet for frustration these women must have had. Even among their family they were expected to be always correct, always tactful and always pleasant. If you are really angry, frustrated or genuinely sad there were no real outlet. You could go to your room, playing sick and let it out there but you would have to be extremely sure of your friends to let them see your real emotions. Glamour becomes Jane’s outlet for these emotions and she grows as a person because of it.
Speaking of Jane, it is really refreshing to see a female protagonist who are allowed to have flaws and that these flaws are not only low self esteem. Jane is frequently wrong, she is quite clumsy and far from pretty (which is unusual in fiction). She is however a very talented artist and glamourist. She is also too nice for her own good at times and always thinks the best of people and I think she is quite a sympathetic character. Her sister is extremely beautiful and is much more temperamental. I think most stories would have chosen the sister as the protagonist (and I wouldn’t mind a few short stories from her point of view). It is lovely to see the contrast and the interplay between the two. The men are generally less interesting but especially the first book very much take place in a woman’s world. They don’t really know men or who men think as their interaction with them are very limited and strictly regulated. For their own good of course, of course *dripping sarcasm*.
Ok, enough said about the first book. The second and third books are quite different beasts. The characters and the setting are the same, but Jane is now married and off to the continent in the second book for her honeymoon, which turns into an adventure/spy story. But like in the first book it take a very long time for the plot to step forward and take center stage. It lurks in the wings but we get a lot of quite lovely domestic scenes first. I love the domestic scenes they are so well written and like a great short story it is tiny things that makes the scenes. There is a lot of cutting wit and towards the end of the books some quite dramatic scenes as well. I personally like that it takes so long for the plot to build up, as the view into 1810s society is so well drawn out. I likened it to the whimsical scenes in Harry Potter – nothing much is going on but we get to look into a foreign world and step into the minds of people who think very little like us.
Most modern people have the luxury of disregarding the opinion of people they don’t particularly like (unless they are their bosses), who cares what they think? But in a world where status is all that matters and the good opinion of your peers is all the capital you got, well there you do not have the luxury of disregarding other people’s opinions. At least not as part of the upper classes.
I really love that Kowal has chosen to set the books inside of real events for the second and third book and has used them as part of the plot. From the second book we are in alternate history where our protagonists alter the course of history which I always find fascinating. If the first book is a romantic Jane Austen pastice and the second book is a spy adventure, then the third book is a political mystery.
I do by the way adore the covers they are amazing. Speaking of amazing, the fashion in these books are just lovely and so well described – and never in too much detail. Kowal has lots of pictures of the dresses on her website along with quite a bit of in progress updates about the writing of the books. They books are primarily written with the vocabulary of the time but without being bugged down by the style of an 1800s novel. The vocabulary lends a lot of authenticity to the story telling and I am very thankful that she did not try to mimic the writing style closer than she did. It is very readable and well written. Lovely!
The only thing i didn’t particularly like in the way the books were written was the fact that every now and then (quite rarely really) the story teller of the story would speak directly to the reader. I found it rather jarring and it took me out of the story every time it happened, so I was very happy that it only happened one or two times per story. I am not used to read stories that is not told from a strict point of view (either third or first). I know it is common in some genres but in most of the fantasy and science fiction I read, there is only one point of view at the time. You only know what one person is thinking and that person is observing the rest of the world. I think it mostly annoyed me because I am not used to it. Right now I am reading a historical mystery and it has the same all knowing storyteller (without the comments thankfully).
This is however not the reason I give it four stars, not five. To me a five star book is a book, that I wholeheartedly recommend to everyone around me and one I can not stop to talk about or think about. So that bar is pretty high. So expect to see a lot of four star reviews on here, as I will not review things I only give three stars on here, see my goodreads profile if you want to see what I think of books I only think is average.
These are by no means books for anybody, but if you like fantasy, historical fiction and want a view into society of the 1810s when this is definitely a book series to check out. They have interesting characters and are very well written! It is a great window into the 1810s upper class society, if you like me, do not have the patience to read period writers. I am very much looking forward to the next installment in this series and it has inspired me to read more books set in the 1800s – so yeah.
I just discovered that Mary Robinette Kowal is the audiobook narrator of my favourite series by Seanan McGuire the October Daye series. She is pretty brilliant at narration as well and I suspect that she is a bit part of why I love that series so much.