sff she-read #5: SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY, by Mary Robinette Kowal

The original she-read post.

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.

7 thoughts on “sff she-read #5: SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY, by Mary Robinette Kowal

  1. Pingback: sff she-read 2012 « the pulchrifex papers

  2. Normally, I don’t engage with negative reviews — though thank you for saying that I can write — but since you’re a WE listener, I’m going to step in.

    First, I’d like to know why you think SOMAH isn’t fantasy? Because for me the thing that I was trying to subvert wasn’t Jane Austen, wasn’t Regency romance, it was fantasy. I wanted to see what would happen if you took fantasy and crammed it into a Jane Austen plot mold. Is it derivative? I think of it as an homage, but that’s a quibble. Yes, it is. I worked very hard to not break the structure in the first book.

    Here, I go into the process of creating the magic system it at length on John Scalzi’s The Big Idea series. http://whatever.scalzi.com/2010/08/03/the-big-idea-mary-robinette-kowal/

    I’ll grant that there’s no evil overlord, and that I designed glamour to map neatly into the other arts, but the story does break if you make Mr. Vincent a painter. So… why isn’t this a fantasy to you?

    Second: Try the Mistborn series. I think you’ll like them.

    • Hi Mary. Wasn’t expecting to see you here. Especially not that fast. Thanks for engaging in spite of my negativity. I’ll try to make it worth your while, but not right now — it’s way past my bedtime.

      The one thing I think I can say now, and this is where my request for people knowledgeable about Jane Austen plot molds comes in, is: What’s the difference between applying a “mold,” which suggests a template that can accommodate a lot of different stories, and a rewrite of a particular story? My ignorance of what and how people were writing when Austen was writing is surely not helping me here, but the similarity between SOMAH (I’ll grant you a conjunction in the acronym) and PRIDE & PREJUDICE seems to go beyond that, as I was trying to show with the character-character mapping. But maybe that’s the way people did things back then — you had a fixed set of highly articulated types and events, and you were limited to shuffling them into variations on themes? I don’t know, maybe you can characterize 20th- and 21st-century fantasy and sf this way, but it’s hard for me to believe there’s anything nearly that tight binding, let’s say, the Dragonlance Chronicles, ELANTRIS, PERDIDO STREET STATION, the Lankhmar books, and SANDMAN. (Hopefully the preceding list is testament that I don’t apply an evil overlord litmus test in my fantasy reading.)

      OK, one more thing, though it’s not very useful, since it just relies on contradicting you: The answer to “why isn’t this a fantasy to you?” is basically my disagreement with your claim that “the story does break if you make Mr. Vincent a painter.” Maybe I can get myself there with some thinking. It’s also, granted, an overstatement. I’m aware that fiction with magic is fantasy. But the magic seems grafted on to me. That’s the essence of the gripe.

      As far as Mistborn: We’ll see. Like said, I like Brandon’s work on the Wheel of Time, but I didn’t like ELANTRIS (which I finished) or the extremely generous Kindle sample of THE WAY OF KINGS (which I did not go on to purchase). This is me stopping myself from going on about why.

      … so that was a lot of answering your question after saying I wasn’t going to answer your question. Hopefully I have something interesting to add later. I think I have a thought about the target of your subversion and whether or not it’s relevant to my reaction, but I’m not sure what it is yet. I really need to go to bed.

      • Ahh… but in your list of 20th and 21st century novels, you’ve listed multiple authors in different sub-genres of fantasy. I picked one author whose work was a a serious departure from the other books of her time. The fact that you are applying the template to another of her works than the one I consciously modeled this on, is, I think an indication that you can place the plot mold on any of her major works.

        So what are some of the elements? The tropes, if you will, which are now markers of Regency Romances — yes, that’s an entire sub-genre in the romance industry.

        You need:
        A small town with narrowly defined social circles
        A young lady of quality
        A gentleman that she cannot fall in love with for Good and Sufficient reasons
        Who is frequently brooding
        A new gentleman comes to the neighborhood that seems like a good match, but is not
        At least one silly female relative
        A secondary romantic plot that is doomed
        Eventually, the young lady of quality and the brooding gentleman fall in love despite obstacles.

        There’s also social commentary and humor, but we’re talking plot elements at the moment.

        One of the problems with your alignment with Pride and Prejudice is that Elizabeth Bennet was a wildly unconventional character and quite shocking in her day. Jane Ellsworth is modeled on Anne Elliot from Persuasion, who is conventional to the point of subsuming her own desires. They are all three, however, young ladies of quality. Also, frankly, I based the novel primarily on Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility, with a little Emma thrown in. Mr. Vincent is a hybrid of Edward Ferrars and Mr. Knightly. Can I see the Darcy comparison? Yes, but because Darcy himself is a variation on type for Austen.

        I could go on, but in general the point that I would be trying to make is that in order for this novel to be recognizably in the Austen mold, it needed to stay within fairly narrow confines. Now, fantasy readers might not like those confines, but I had to work very hard to keep the fantasy tropes from breaking out of the mold. I did, actually, crack the mold at the end of the book by bringing in elements from Austen that happen offstage in her books — horse chases, duels, etc — and have them happen onstage. Other than that… I tried to use the tropes of Regency Romance to see what would happen to the fantasy element. The answer was that it stayed very small scale and had to be largely decorative or the Regency broke. That doesn’t mean that it is isn’t integral to the story.

        As for the fantasy element: Mr. Vincent’s collapse and the reasons behind it, the sphere obscurcie, the recording of the conversation in the maze… I’m at a loss as to how the plot would function without those.

        For the second book, I felt like I had done this experiment and didn’t try to stay in the Jane Austen plot mold. It’s more recognizably a fantasy.

      • “The fact that you are applying the template to another of her works than the one I consciously modeled this on, is, I think an indication that you can place the plot mold on any of her major works.”

        This sounds right to me. On the one hand, I’m not sure how much you can do with such a restrictive framework (does every story really read like PRIDE & PREJUDICE?); on the other, I suppose I owe it to everyone to read at least some more Austen before saying anything more strongly phrased on the topic.

        Most of the rest of what I might say boils down to not really understanding why one would write a Regency/fantasy mashup without letting the fantasy mess around with the Regency (and vice versa, of course, although you’ve done that). Which boils down to not understanding why anyone would rehearse any highly articulated genre without trying to mess with its conventions. (One reason: Along the lines of the Scalzi link you posted, it forces you into certain creative approaches to worldbuilding.) Anyway, I say “not really understanding why” as a reasonably sincere declaration of ignorance, rather than code for “thinking it is stupid that.” Obviously people respond to these forms, and probably their reasons are not all bad.

      • Why? Honestly because Austen makes me weep in ways that conventional fantasy rarely does. I wanted to see if I could do that. And, as noted above, I did tweak the Austen plot structure. So, I think what this might come down to is that I like that kind of fiction and it’s not your cup of tea. So to speak.

  3. Pingback: sff she-read #7: STRANGER THINGS HAPPEN, by Kelly Link « the pulchrifex papers

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