The Big Idea: Mary Robinette Kowal

I’m not going to pretend to be objective here — Mary Robinette Kowal is one of my favorite people, and more than that, she’s a heck of an author, as her Campbell Award and Hugo nomination strongly suggest. So it was no surprise that I greatly enjoyed her debut novel Shades of Milk and Honey, which cleverly cast magic into the milieu of England’s Regency Era. Nor is it a surprise that others have enjoyed it as well (“the grace of Sense and Sensibility, a touch of classic fairy tale magic, and an action-packed ending” — Library Journal).

Part of the enjoyment of the novel comes from how Mary considered the role of magic in her novel, balancing the facts and implications of a magic-filled world with the desire to make the women of the magical England she created one that would have the cares and concerns that they would have had in the historical era from which she borrowed. Because magic is a funny thing — if you think through all that magic could do, you realize how disruptive it can actually be.

How did Mary manage the balance between magic and reality? Let her weave the story for you.


At some point, I was was reading Persuasion, by Jane Austen, and wondering where the small scale stories were in fantasy literature.  I started racking my brain, trying to think of stories in which the fate of the world or someone’s life didn’t hang in the balance.  There aren’t many of them.  The thing is that there are so many ways a person’s life can go wrong without needing to have Certain! Death! driving the plot.

This led me to wondering what sort of novel Jane Austen would have written if she’d lived in a world where magic worked.  It would be an intimate story and tightly focused on one family.  In the Regency and for much of western European history, a woman’s main goal was to make a desirable match because the wrong marriage, or spinsterhood could doom the woman.  I don’t think that magic would change this.

Or rather, it depends on the kind of magic.  Once I started imaging this world I had to start by designing a magic system that wouldn’t distort history too far from the historic Regency England.  The magic in my world is called “glamour” and its practitioners are glamourists.  It’s a largely illusionary form of magic and considered one of womanly arts like painting, music, or needlepoint.  Like these other womanly arts, everyone has the potential to do it but practicing them takes training, energy, and time to which restricts these arts to the leisure class.  A farmer’s wife might do folk glamour in the same way someone would beautify their home with folk art but in general wouldn’t have the energy to do much with it.

And glamour does take energy, the same way running up a hill takes energy. If one does too much glamour, or are wearing a corset, one might faint.  Yes, there is swooning in my novel. It is modeled on Jane Austen, after all, just with magic.

Because glamour is considered a woman’s art, I used language related to textiles for how glamourists describe what they are doing. They’ll talk about folds of glamour, or weaves or stitching, all of which are metaphors for the way that they manipulate the magic.  Here’s a paragraph in which Jane Ellsworth, my main character, adds some glamour to their drawing room when the family is expecting company.

The drawing room already had a simple theme of palm trees and egrets designed to complement its Egyptian revival furniture. For the better part of an hour, Jane and Melody twisted and pulled folds of glamour out of the ether. Some of the older threads of glamour in the palm trees had become frayed, making the images lose their resolution. In other places, Jane added more depth to the illusion by creating a breeze to ruffle the fronds of the glamour. Though her breath came quickly and she felt light-headed with the effort of placing so many folds, the effect was well worth such a trifling strain.

Finding a balance between magic that was worth doing and would have an impact on the story but not reshape history was a complicated process. For instance, at one point I was describing someone weaving a fold to create a beam of sunlight on the wall and I stopped cold.  Had I created a world in which candles wouldn’t have been invented?

I mean, think about it. Why would someone invent artificial light if you could create it with glamour?  This led to me restricting what glamour could do even more.  Like a trompe-l’œi  painting, a glamourist can make it look like sun is streaming into a room, but if you stick a book into the light, it isn’t actually brighter.  Basically, the question I kept coming back to when designing the glamour was, “can this be used in war?”  Because if there were a military application then the art of glamour wouldn’t be left to women during this time period.

There was a constant back and forth as I was developing the system, tightening the rules about  what it could and could not do throughout the book.  If I had a magic system that was too powerful then I’d wind up with a story that wasn’t something Jane Austen would have written.

Constraining the glamour to match her stories,  led to some interesting restrictions which I think made this a stronger story.  In general, I find that the more restricted the magic is the more inventive you have to get about how  your characters work around those rules.

Those restrictions, for me, mirror the restrictions that women had in the Regency.  Often considered decorative objects without a use beyond beauty and childbirth, women had to become very inventive in finding ways to work within their societal restrictions.  That’s one reason that it was important to me for glamour to be a womanly art.  It’s not just because I didn’t want the world to shift too much from ours — I could have dealt with that by making it a secondary fantasy world —  but because I wanted my main character to be a glamourist.  I was curious about how  skill with glamour would affect a young lady of quality in a Jane Austen world.

And that’s really what the big idea of this novel is all about.  What would Jane Austen write if she lived in a world where magic worked? I hope that it would be something like Shades of Milk and Honey.


Shades of Milk and Honey: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt from the novel. Visit Mary Robinette Kowal’s journal. Follow her on Twitter.

18 Comments on “The Big Idea: Mary Robinette Kowal”

  1. Interesting. I love the intellectual challenge you placed upon yourself, to limit magic system to a degree that while it was still fantastic it wasn’t overwhelmingly powerful. I hope the book does well. It may have a good chance, if the wave started with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is still going strong.

  2. This is JUST the sort of book I love. I wish there was a consistent genre name for it–Regency Fantasy? Historical Magic?

    I like Wrede and Stevermere especially and am looking forward very much to Kowal!

    I can’t afford hardback books now. And when I looked it up in the local library, it’s not in the catalogue. So I’ve ILLed it. Hopefully, this will result in one or more branches ordering copies for their collections and will result in more sales than just the one.

    I’ve noticed that a few times when I’ve requested ILL of a new book the local library will just order a copy and check it out to me. Yeah!

    K.W @1, somehow I just can’t quite equate “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” with “Mairelon the Magician”, “Sorcery and Cecelia”, or “A College of Magics”. The tones are so different.

  3. My favorite line from the Harry Potter movies is “I love magic!” when he walks into a tiny tent, expecting to be crowded, and it ends up being a beautiful, comfortable living space. I myself have always loved reading Regency romances. So to put the two together sounds like absolute heaven. I can’t wait to find this one and delve into it.

  4. @3, I thought the common term was fantasy of manners. It even has a wikipedia page, which in addition to the Stevermer and Wrede above mentions Kushner (Swordspoint) and Walton (Tooth and Claw, aka Jane Austen with dragons).

    I’m particularly glad that Ms Kowal (are you filed under K, or R?) is thinking about the long range effects of her changes.

  5. @6, Mary Robinette Kowal would be filed under K. To be filed under R, the name would have to be hyphenated.

  6. @7, Of course there are always exceptions. I found Carlos Ruiz Zafon in the R’s at Borders. I only discovered this because I had to pass the R’s on my way to the exit. Thankfully, I found my book and didn’t leave empty handed.

  7. @9 Kate who is not Baker: Woot!

    Regarding the discussion of where to find my name. Nick H. is correct that it SHOULD be filed under K. Robinette is my middle name and not a maiden name or hyphenated HOWEVER I regularly have registrations misfiled under R and it wouldn’t surprise me if that happens at least once with the novel.

  8. I already knew that Mary Robinette Kowal was a really nice person. What I did not know is that she wrote historical fantasy. We can call it something else–in fact, our editors may insist that we do–but we few who write it, read it, and love it, know it for what it is. Maybe it’s a red-headed step-child genre, but its mine and I can’t wait to read Mary’s book!

  9. @11 – Hmm. A list of Historical Fantasy in *addition* to Wrede, Stevermere, Lackey, Walton and Clarke. Heaven.

    To me “Fantasy of Manners” would be more like Jane Austen with magic, while “Historical Fantasy” could encompass books such as Novik’s Temeraire series, which have hardly any magic in them. And while I like Novik’s books, and Stephanie, I just checked out your web page and yours look interesting, too, it’s the “Fantasy of Manners” (I’d forgotten about that term) that I adore and cannot find enough of.

    The nuances between the two would be an interesting topic for discussion but perhaps subject to the loving mallet of on-topicness here.

  10. This is fantastic. My sister loves Austen, and she likes some fantasy, as long as the main character is female. Now I know what to get her for Christmas. (Of course, I’m going to have to read it too. That’s the way book gifts work, isn’t it?)

  11. I’d not heard the term “Fantasy of Manners” before. The main reason I wrote this is because it’s the kind of book I want to read. Knowing that there are others out there? Must seek.

  12. I think I’d recommend starting with “Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot” by Wrede and Stevermer and the two sequels. They’re fun. In fact, I just checked them out of the library to re-read.

    Also, Wrede’s “Mairelon the Magician” (1991) and “Magician’s Ward” (1997) along with Stevermer’s “A College of Magics” (1994) and “ A Scholar of Magics” (2004)

    Mercedes Lackey has the Elemental Masters series ( though these are set later than the Regency time period.

  13. Susanna Clarke “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” actually has the titular magicians in the employ of the British government and using their magic against Napoleon’s forces, plus Lord Byron pops up.

    (am now going to see if this book is available yet in UK – have already recc’d it on subject alone to a couple of US Regency/magic buffs.)

  14. I’ve read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and loved it. In fact, it came out right after I started writing this and I initially despaired because I thought that all other Regencys would look like copycats. Bwahahaha!

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