Thursday, September 16, 2010

Shades of Milk and Honey

by Mary Robinette Kowal
New York : Tor, 2010.

Jane and Melody are sisters in need of husbands in a time when propriety was everything and estates were entailed away. Lovely Melody seems to have an interest in either Mr. Dunkirk or Captain Livingston, the nephew of Lady FitzCameron. Jane hopes to attract the notice of Mr. Dunkirk herself; she may be plain, but she is quite an accomplished lady, not least in the ability to work glamour.

Yes, you read right. In this Austenesque fantasy, working magic - known as "glamour" - is an art much like painting or music that could be added to a woman's (or man's) repertoire. For example, when Mr. Vincent and Jane discuss the use and appreciation of glamour, the basic tenets could also apply to art or literature. Mr. Vincent claims, "Illusions should be entrancing without someone looking behind the scenes to see how they are made. Would you enjoy a play if you saw the mechanicals exposed? For me it is much the same. I want the illusion to remain whole. If someone thinks about how it is done, I have failed in my art" (92). Jane, on the other hand, disagrees: "I have always thought that an educated audience would more fully appreciate the effort which went into creating a piece of art" (92).

These principles are especially interesting to consider when one realizes that the author often cleverly nods to Jane Austen while creating an original story that succeeds even when you are not familiar with Austen's work. Would I have enjoyed it had I never read Pride and Prejudice or Northanger Abbey? Yes. Would I have fully appreciated it with no knowledge of Austen? Probably not. While I could see Austen's influence, I never felt that I was reading a copycat. But Mr. Vincent has a point - when I'm writing a paper in my head (one never stops being an English major), it generally means that the story hasn't captured me entirely. I often find experimental stories frustrating because they force me to focus on the mechanics. When I'm really enjoying a story, I'm not worrying about mechanics or analysis, "I want the illusion to remain whole."

Do you think the arts succeed most when you're not thinking about the mechanics, or do you get more out of a book or painting or what have you by analyzing and appreciating? Or is it somewhere in between?

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