sff she-read #5: SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY, by Mary Robinette Kowal
It is probably bad form to start a review with a long self-quote, but this is a relevant plank in my platform, so here goes. I wrote the following on the Amherst online community not long ago:
I think it’s popular for sf/f writers aspiring to middlebrowness and mass appeal to suggest that invention and extrapolation are somehow separable from the parts of the story that really matter, which are (mostly) character and theme. Or at least Brandon Sanderson said it once, and since I’m starting to be a little bit entertained by my own love-hate relationship with Brandon Sanderson, I find it an entertaining idea to take down. Anyway, it’s obviously wrong. I mean, it’s not all wrong; focusing on character and theme in a milieu that is incidentally genre will make for a better story than focusing on invention and extrapolation to the exclusion of character and theme. But it astounds me that anyone could think that Samuel Delany and Ursula Le Guin could have done the experiments with language and gender in purely mimetic settings that they did in STARS IN MY POCKET LIKE GRAINS OF SAND and THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, or that the Malazan Book of the Fallen might just be a big war novel with funny weapons, or that THE SCAR could just as easily have been some kind of, I don’t know, Aubrey & Maturin spinoff? The point is that the best sf/f books spin out questions and problems that affect character and theme in ways that aren’t really accessible, or at least as fluently accessible, to mimetic fiction.
The invocation of Brandon Sanderson above is coincidental but autobiographically resonant (for me). Brandon Sanderson used to be the smartest person on Writing Excuses; now Mary Robinette Kowal is. I am a regular Writing Excuses listener even though I have read ELANTRIS, I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER, and SCHLOCK MERCENARY and hated them all. OK, “hated” is too strong there, but it made the sentence snap in just the right way. Anyway, this surprised me. The only work from Sanderson, Wells, or Tayler that I’d read before I started listening to WE was Sanderson’s work on the Wheel of Time, which I thought was a huge step up from latter-day Robert Jordan, and I thought the three of them (and, later, Kowal) talked cogently and usefully about writing. So it was very weird to discover that their stuff was kind of bad. So, I’m not going to lie, I pinned some hopes to SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY (hereinafter SOMH). If it turned out to kick ass, then I could finally feel really good about listening to Writing Excuses. If not, well, I was going to have to accept that for some reason I like listening to writing advice from writers who are kind of bad.
The good news is that, at least based on SOMH, Kowal easily beats the other three for the beauty of her prose and the construction of her stories. The bad news is that SOMH isn’t really fantasy.
Lots of good books aren’t fantasy, of course; this didn’t have to be bad news. It’s bad news for SOMH because, stripped of the fantasy, you start comparing it to its obvious literary antecedents, and it comes up short. And not so much “short” as in “possibly not a classic with the centuries-long staying power of Jane Austen”; more like “short” as in “not nearly as weird and deep and powerful as JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL,” and unmistakably as in “really, really derivative of PRIDE & PREJUDICE.”
I’d really like to hear other opinions on this, preferably ones that show me how I’m wrong. I’m assuming that the sorts of people who would want to read SOMH are mostly people who’ve read Austen, and maybe their finer sensibilities have caught some sort of literary play that’s too sophisticated for my, let’s face it, Star Trek- and Dragonlance-reared critical faculties. But [SPOILERS] Jane is Elizabeth Bennet; Melody is Lydia; the Ellsworth parents are the Bennet parents; Livingston is Wickham; Vincent and Darcy clearly wear the same cologne. I suppose Dunkirk might be Bingley, but who cares? Anyway, the proof that SOMH is derivative comes from the fact that these character mappings practically spell out the plot and many of the patterns of interaction among characters. Magic, called “glamour,” is just another form of art in this world; its practical applications are explicitly disavowed, although there are hints that Jane and Vincent might develop those during their married life (not treated in this book). Its only purpose is to serve as a source of affinity between Jane and Vincent. Yes, there are a few things that wouldn’t have happened exactly the way they did in a non-magical world, but nothing meaningful about this story changes if “glamour” becomes painting or music.
Which is a shame, because Kowal can write. I don’t think I could imitate Austen’s diction as well as she does; I assume that means she can also write well in her mother tongue. And I know she’s smart — smarter than Brandon Sanderson, who himself has a lot of good ideas on Writing Excuses despite writing and promoting some genuinely terrible fiction. So the whole thing just leaves me a little befuddled. I would pick up GLAMOUR IN GLASS, just to see what happens, but I wouldn’t be wildly optimistic. Still, I would really like some Austen fans to read this and tell me what they think.