Another sort of fantasy – more musings on Shades of Milk & Honey

Posted: November 24, 2014 in reading
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It is a truth universally acknowledged that a fantasy novel must feature an action sequence. Except that, as Austen readers will know, a universally acknowledged truth has about as much value as Mr Wickham’s honour, which is to say even less than his pocket-book after a night out in Bath. (For anyone who’s somehow missed out on Pride and Prejudice in its many incarnations, Wickham’s a cad and a bounder, and you can probably work out the rest. Guess I should have said spoilers, but I think 200 years is about the point at which I don’t need to say that, right?)

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good action sequence. I grew up watching westerns and war films. I can recite the action sequences from Star Wars almost as well as the lines from the script. When I was nine I drew a whole series of illustrations showing the Battle of the Five Armies from The Hobbit, and I believe that by restricting myself to a red felt tip pen I truly evoked the bloodthirsty horrors of war. Or was too lazy to go find another colour – these things happen.

But much as I love a bit of action and excitement, I want other things from culture as well. I want The Great Gatsby and Lost in Translation. I want Miles Davis as well as Metallica. And this principle applies to my fantasy and science fiction.

The modern fantasy genre has emerged out of a tradition of mythological adventure and pulp story telling, and those both brought with them a lot of sword swinging and chasing around the place. But that’s the thing about emerging from a tradition – you get to do something more. That’s part of what I’m really enjoying about reading Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk & Honey. It takes magic and uses it to tell a story about love, art and social conventions, not about full-blooded adventures full of daring do.

Unless something changes in the last hundred pages. At time of writing I haven’t finished the book yet, and maybe there’s a surprise car chase featuring a Jason Statham-style character before the end. But I doubt it.

Some people might say ‘no action? that doesn’t sound very exciting.’ To which I say ‘action all the time? sounds dull too.’ I crave variety, and having a fantasy story that uses magic to explore art and 19th century social conventions adds variety, adds excitement, adds wonder.

Some fantasy claims to break with tradition because it doesn’t have orcs and elves, or because the hero’s not very nice, or because it’s got gunpowder. And every story to some extent uses and to some extent breaks from tradition. But Shades of Milk & Honey is a far greater and more interesting break from the fantasy tradition than almost anything I’ve read, because it doesn’t just change the details, it changes the fundamentals of what drives a fantasy plot and how conflict is enacted in it.

I’m not saying I want all fantasy to be like this. I like my orcs and thinly disguised orc substitutes. I like seeing Sean Bean die over and over again. But please, let there be more fantasy out there like Shades of Milk & Honey, as well as more that’s nothing like it but nothing like Tolkien either. Let there be real variety. Let there be fantasy slacker stories, and fantasy medical dramas, and fantasies in which cops and criminals embody the social problems facing modern society. Because we all want to see a fantasy version of The Wire right? What, no? You think that’s a terrible idea? Damn, there goes my pitch letter to HBO.

So, after all of this you probably think that I’m going to recommend that you read Shades of Milk & Honey, right?

Wrong. By now you know enough to decide that for yourself. And if you’ve read this far, odds are you’re already on board for this beautiful magical take on Jane Austen’s world. So instead I’m going to throw another recommendation your way. Read Phonogram Volume 2: The Singles Club, a comic by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. It’s another great example of fantasy used to explore a different facet of life. Like Shade of Milk & Honey it’s something you should love, and even if you don’t then it’ll add some variety to your life.

But read Shades of Milk & Honey too. Because I lied about not recommending it. And that Jason Statham car chase chapter is awesome.


Postscript, Monday morning:

I finished reading Shades of Milk & Honey last night. There actually is an action sequence of sorts near the end, and by the time it arrives any halfway smart reader will be expecting it. It doesn’t detract from my general point – in fact it’s so at odds with the tone of what enchanted me about this book that I may write another post about it – but I thought I should mention that it’s there.

No Jason Statham though. Not unless they make some strange casting choices when this become a movie.



I wrote this post in the middle of Saturday night. I couldn’t sleep. That may explain a lot. Expect more about this book later in the week, because I’m all enthused.

If you want to see how I write both full-blooded action adventure and fantasy that’s about art and whimsy, then please check out By Sword, Stave or Stylus, my collection of fantasy stories.

  1. Now I want to write a fantasy medical drama. I could do it too. One of my series characters is a medical mage…. *twitch*

    • That would be pretty cool. I can’t remember the name of the guy who did it for sf, but I’ve never seen the fantasy equivalent. And imagine all the weird diseases…

      • Muhahahahaaa. Heck, I’d planned to do a pathology-related mystery with him at some point anyway. I can just expand it to a medical magic teaching facility. Pitch it as Harry Potter with scalpels, or House with incantations….

        • ‘House with incantations’ sounds more appealing, thought that may be because I just watched a whole season of that show in a few days. Damn but Hugh Laurie is good.

          Also I just realised, I actually did start writing a fantasy medical drama once. My first attempt to write a novel was about a doctor in a black powder fantasy world, trying to work out what was causing a plague. I gave up a third of the way through when I realised that I was making a mess trying to cram in every fantasy idea I’d ever had. Maybe I should dust it off…

  2. Joanna says:

    I mostly enjoyed Shades of Milk and Honey, but found the climax at odds with the tone of the rest of the story. Such drama, danger, and rushing around!

    • My thoughts exactly! Even though every element of that finale – characters, actions, magical technique, even the horses – had been set up in advance, the tone of it was so different that it felt out of place, like it belonged in a different book. I still enjoyed it enough that I’m now reading the sequel, and will be perfectly happy to read about Jane getting into magical adventure stories, I’d just have liked the Austen-style book to have an Austen-style climax.

  3. […] Another sort of fantasy – more musings on Shades of Milk & Honey […]

  4. glenatronn says:

    Are you familiar with Strange & Norrell? That is my main reference point for the Georgian fantasy novel and I found it a little dull but had it recommended to me by quite a few non-genre-reading friends. I think a lot of the things that made it interesting to them were the same things that as a long time genre reader felt a little ordinary to me, so I guess that might have been a classic example of a literary crossover hit.

    • I haven’t read it, though I’m aware of it due to the level of fame it achieved on first release. It might make for interesting reading after this, to see how much it creates a distinctly Georgian atmosphere and whether that’s done using the same tricks and tropes.

      There’s definitely something in that difference between fantasy that’ll be interesting for fantasy fans and what’ll entertain those not familiar with the genre. I’ve made some poor recommendations to people in the past due to misjudging that. But I think that in a way those accessible works are just as important to pushing fantasy forward, because they help to create fans and so the community that supports the other works. Who knows how many people have moved on from reading Harry Potter as kids to get into the hard stuff later.

      First hit’s free. Next one comes at the price of learning some fantasy literacy.

  5. […] Another sort of fantasy – more musings on Shades of Milk & Honey […]

  6. […] Another sort of fantasy – more musings on Shades of Milk & Honey […]

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