Subtle world building – Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk & Honey

Posted: November 22, 2014 in reading
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How authors reveal their fictional worlds can be very telling, both about their worlds, about their writing, and about the way we read genre fiction.

I’ve just started reading Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk & Honey, a fascinating book that combines the social whimsy of Jane Austen with magical fantasy. There’s a lot to be said about this book, and I may say more of it another day. There’s also a lot to be said about the author, who has repeatedly shown herself to be one of the most entertaining and insightful figures on the modern fantasy scene – if you want proof then go listen to a couple of episodes of the Writing Excuses podcast.

But one of the first things that struck me was a matter of geography. Early on, characters make reference to living in the vicinity of Dorchester. ‘Aha,’ I thought, ‘my mum lives in Dorchester, and she likes a bit of local interest, maybe this could be a way to get her reading fantasy?’ My mum found the first Lord of the Rings film boring, so getting her into fantasy is quite a challenge.

But then I stopped and thought for a minute about the way this book works. From the start the magic, called glamour, is worked into the story. This is done not through explanations and exposition, but by a steady trickle of references and a series of moments showing glamour in action. For me, as a regular fantasy reader, this is perfect. It’s done with subtlety and care, weaving an understanding of the world around me rather than dumping it down in thick expository slabs.

But that works for me because I’m a regular fantasy reader. One of the conventions of the genre is that new ideas and elements in the world are referenced from the start, but not directly explained unless that becomes necessary, letting the reader work it out for themselves. To someone who’s less used to the genre this could be frustrating. They might get annoyed at all these unexplained references, or not have the genre experience to piece the puzzle together and work it out. It could be baffling rather than pleasing.

Genre literacy is just like any other form of cultural literacy – it allows access to a heightened experience of the genre, but can lead to works that frustrate others. Just look at modern art – what’s meaningful to an aficionado is largely lost on me and downright ugly to my gran. Similarly, really well written fantasy can, by creeping steps, become less accessible to others.

I’ll probably lend Shades of Milk & Honey to Mum at some point. I’m curious to see how accessible it is to her, and if it sparks an interest in fantasy literature then that will give us something in common. In the meantime I get to enjoy a cleverly written book.

What do you think? Do you think well written fantasy is usually accessible fantasy? How do you like to see worlds revealed? And if you’ve read Mary’s Glamourist Histories what did you think of them?



Quick reminder, my science fiction collection Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is still free on the Kindle until the end of tomorrow, 22 November – go get some free reading, see how subtle or not my world building is.

  1. everwalker says:

    I recently had a fantasy piece rejected from a non-genre anthology on the grounds that the perspective wasn’t close enough to the character, despite being really pretty close when measured by fantasy genre standards. There’s a surprising number of genre conventions we take completely for granted, I think.

  2. I have a friend who’s not a fantasy or sci-fi person but who used to enjoy Fringe, along with her husband who also wasn’t a genre-reader/viewer. She’d come to me a lot for an explanation of plot-points, and sometimes even the general bent of the series. I eventually figured out the main issue she was having: she was trying to watch it like a TV mystery series, where the viewer is expected to speculate on the motive/cause/identity of the perpetrator and otherwise be engaged in unraveling the case. I told her that for fantasy and sci-fi shows, you need to do less speculating, and allow the writers to explain the world and its idiosyncrasies to you — because they won’t always follow real-world logic or have real-world solutions. That helped her a lot, but got me thinking about how different the mindset is for each genre.

    • That’s fascinating, especially as I would have thought Fringe was relatively accessible. I guess it goes to show how embedded I am in sf+f expectations.

      • I’d say it’s accessible, but it still posits a familiarity with things like alternate realities, doppelgangers, mad science, psychic powers, et cetera. The X-Files is similar, but it approached its cases from a more outsider-perspective; Mulder and Scully never lit lightbulbs with their minds or were used to power reality-melding machinery. There’s a greater suspension-of-disbelief required, and for people used to disbelieving the testimony of mystery characters, it’s a hard switch.

  3. wgosline says:

    Interesting points. I think that this sort of work might serve more as an entree for genre fiction writers into the classics (i.e. Jane Austen) than the other way around. I agree: most mainstream readers would just be perplexed and annoyed if a perfectly good historical fiction piece suddenly started popping imps under the stairwells.

    • I think you’re right about it being a better way to create Austen fans than fantasy ones. Of course where you introduce the fantasy matters – as it’s in this book from the start, at least readers wouldn’t get halfway through before having the rug pulled out from underneath them, but that also means there’s no gentle easing in.

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  6. […] Jane’s character and attachments put her at a marital disadvantage in the first book, Shades of Milk & Honey. Being a woman in an incredibly patriarchal society makes her vulnerable to the decisions and […]

  7. […] before, world building that seems subtle and sophisticated to a science fiction and fantasy fan can be bewildering to a casual reader. At the extreme, a novel like The Bookman takes effort to untangle for even the most dedicated […]

  8. […] paragraphs of narrative and dialogue to explain the workings of her world. Mary Robinette Kowal, in Shades of Milk and Honey, subtly lays out the world through implications and small references. In Lavie Tidhar’s […]

  9. Sheila Thomas says:

    I am now getting towards the end of this book. I borrowed it on your recommendation, and it proved an excellent way to pass a wet afternoon. I do not quite understand why I am bothered by what seem to me like errors in the author’s understanding of the world her characters are in. Given that there is magic in this fictional world, why should it not be possible for a character to go to London for the day from Dorchester? Why should a small boy not tease his little friends with lizards (hard to find in England) as much as frogs? And don’t start me on the names that jar.
    It is not the first book where failings in consistency of the setting in a “Jane Austen” world has interrupted my immersion in a fictional world.
    So, yes, I am enjoying the story and am glad you recommended it, but I note it as a warning that an author needs to be deliberate about historical inconsistencies, to introduce them for good reason rather than by accident, if readers are remain comfortable in the setting.

    • The issue of travel didn’t even occur to me. Given that it’s incredibly hard to even make the magic mobile, I can’t see any way it would make travel faster. But then, I accepted anything about the setting that was the same as the real world, so could easily have overlooked that sort of thing.

      I’m really curious about what names you found jarring. I know from listening to her talk that the author researched the era heavily, including creating a spell checker to draw attention to any words she used the Austen didn’t (she built the spell checker out of files of Austen’s books, which I thought was particularly ingenious). There were some period authentic names she avoided because she thought they wouldn’t sound like Regency names to modern readers, but of course the results of that would end up rather subjective.

      Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed it, even if there were parts that didn’t suit!

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