Title: Shades of Milk and Honey and Glamour in Glass (Glamourist Histories Books 1 & 2)
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Published: 2010 & 2012
Date Started: December 6, 2015 Date Finished: January 4, 2016
Rating (out of 5): ★★★
Every book has a story: I added Shades of Milk and Honey to my “to be read” shelf on my library account so long ago that I can’t quite remember where I first heard about it. But there is an aspect of the Glamourist History series that goes right to the core of my soul: the Regency era, Jane Austen-ness of it all. The Glamourist Histories are the first books I’ve ever read that take place in Regency England and are not in some way connected to the Jane Austen canon (see Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Longbourn, etc.).
This review contains some spoilers for Shades of Milk and Honey. But if you’re coming at these books as a Jane Austen fan, you will see all of this coming anyway.
The Ellsworths of Long Parkmead had the regard of their neighbours in every respect.
So how did this reader gauge these books against the most demanding measuring stick of all time? I’m afraid the answer is “not with a great deal of fairness.” It’s only now that I’ve been letting the stories process in my mind for a few days that I realize how critical I was as I read them. Though there are certain elements that demand comparison to Jane Austen (tall mysterious stranger offends our heroine, heroine has to bear being constantly thrown together with him, but–spoiler alert!–he’s actually in love with her!), I will be the first person to admit to my heavy bias. It’s funny because I was very shoulder-shruggy while reading Shades of Milk and Honey, but as soon as I finished it, I sought out Glamour in Glass.
Our heroine is Jane Ellsworth, eldest daughter of a respectable family who is already certain her age, plainness, and interests beyond the realms of hats, ribbons, and dancing have committed her to spinsterhood. Here is where the Glamourist Histories earn their keep as a very different world than Jane Austen’s: the young ladies of this Regency England learn magic. It’s very much as era-appropriate magic: glamour is used to create beautiful tableaux or to weave into paintings or music–all about creating beauty and nature and enhancing decor. I quite liked the magic system–it doesn’t always have to be lightning bolts and fireballs for me. I’m romantic enough to enjoy beauty for beauty’s sake. That said, I did expect glamour to take a more sinister turn, which never quite manifested.
Jane is a remarkable glamourist, famous amongst her peers for her talent, and she takes a fair bit of pride in it as she feels it is her only merit when compared to her winsome sister, Melody. I still have not come around on Melody. As woeful as Marianne Dashwood with none of the hopelessly romantic charm; as unbearable as Lydia Bennet along with being cruel. I always like the sisterliness in Jane Austen novels, so having two who are often sundered if not actively at odds was a bit depressing.
So we’ve covered Jane’s pride–how about her prejudice? Jane’s role as talented glamourist is usurped by the arrival of Mr. Vincent, a rare male glamourist with amazing abilities and even innovations in the medium. He is cold, standoffish, and fiercely protective of his ideas, even when Jane is only curious rather than critical. Of course, his softer side eventually comes to light, but Jane’s admiration for him never quite seemed deserved. Yes, he confesses his love for Jane, but nothing else really changes. Darcy confessed his love for Elizabeth and was challenged to be a man who deserved her feelings in return; he overhauled almost every reflex in his body to make himself that man. Mr. Vincent gets off easier, but may a poorer man for it. He’s nicer to Jane, but there’s no indication that he may have tried to make himself a better man in general.
Shades of Milk and Honey covers the usual fare of neighbourhood romances and break-ups and scandals and marriages. Glamour in Glass takes us much farther afield. With Napoleon defeated and exiled, continental Europe opens up as a place of adventure for famous glamourists Mr. and Mrs. Vincent.
He laughed. “Oh, you women are so melodramatic. Do not expect me to catch you when you faint.”
“I would rather hit the ground. Good day, sir.”
Glamour in Glass stakes its place as a Regency-era novel far from Jane Austen’s influence. There is nothing predictable or routine here. The Vincents go abroad, work together on innovative glamour technology, and find themselves deeply embroiled in politics beyond their ken. I always enjoy when the world politics of the time play a more important role in the characters’ lives–such as in the Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman trilogy. The Napoleonic Wars are fascinating, and for Jane and Vincent to be in Belgium when Napoleon makes the Hundred Days’ March (two-hundred-year-old spoiler alert?) changes all the stakes.
Over the two books I came to quite like Jane, but when there’s an after-the-wedding sequel, I want things to become more about the strength of the couple. I already read a book where Jane and Vincent were mostly apart, so I was disappointed in how much Jane and Vincent were separated in Glamour in Glass. Needs must for certain plot points, of course, but I found this was very much the same Mr. Vincent without much more to endear him to me.
And as much as I have come to respect our talented, brave, intelligent Jane, I don’t think that will be enough to sustain me through the rest of the Glamourist Histories–certainly not more of Melody.
Thus, I’m afraid Shades of Milk and Honey and Glamour in Glass were a novel foray into other Regency era tales, but didn’t quite impress themselves upon me enough with their own merits. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who went into these books without my very heavy Jane Austen baggage. It turns out you probably couldn’t beat my love of Jane Austen out of me.