There is a concept in writing that I was recently introduced to, known as a ‘strange attractor’. This is when you take two previously unconnected ideas and build a story around them. Quite a few novels have been published over the last few years. The two easiest examples of this phenomenon are:
Pride & Prejudice + Zombies = Pride & Prejudice & Zombies
Abraham Lincoln + Vampire Hunters = Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter
Yes, I know both of those examples are from the same author, who I’m not actually talking about today. But his novels are very good examples of ‘strange attractors’.
Just a few months ago, Mary Robinette Kowal released Of Noble Family, the fifth and final novel of her Glamourist Histories series. If I needed to describe the series to someone that had not read the books before, it would be like this: imagine that Jane Austen had written the same kind of novels she actually wrote…but had also incorporated some magic into the world. And that this magic, called glamour, was generally considered one of the ‘womanly arts’, along with painting, music, and such.
When I first heard about these books, I was completely hooked based just on that strange attractor combination. I hadn’t really heard of Mary Robinette Kowal before, but the premise sounded amazing. And not once was I disappointed that I decided to pick up these books.
Light spoilers ahead, but nothing you couldn’t have picked up from the book jacket of any of these books.
In fact while reading the first book in the series, Shades of Milk & Honey, it’s quite easy to pick out specific characters or events in the book and say, “Oh, that’s just like this character/event that happens in Pride & Prejudice, but with a twist.” But Shades of Milk & Honey is most definitely NOT a straight up adaptation of Pride & Prejudice + Magic. These are original characters and the story doesn’t slavishly copy Pride & Prejudice.
And the similarities to that particular book only lasts for the first book in the series. The other four books take us to a variety of different places, and forces the characters into various complications, that Jane Austin’s characters never faced. The language and style of writing remains wonderfully reminiscent of Austin, but the content is wonderfully new and exciting:
Our heroes journey to France and become involved in events following Napolean’s return from Elba.
They return home, to deal with family matters and ultimately become embroiled in events that appear treasonous.
They travel to Italy and after being robbed, have to figure out how to put their lives back together with virtually no resources.
They travel to the West Indies to resolve issues with the family estate, and discover complications there that nearly pushes them to the breaking point.
All of these events set within a few years of each other, during the era of Victorian England.
At the heart of all of these novels sits the relationship and marriage of our two protagonists, Jane and Vincent. The fact that Mary Robinette Kowal doesn’t use the ‘wedding’ event as the ‘happy ever after’ it is normally portrayed as is wonderfully refreshing. As I’m sure nearly anyone who has ever been married before can tell you, it’s rarely a happy ever after. It’s not even an ‘ending’, it’s a beginning of a whole new phase of life. And that is abundantly and exquisitely true for Jane and Vincent.
There are relatively few book series where, once the story was truly and finally over, I felt completely satisfied with the ending. The last series that managed to pull that off, for me, was Harry Potter. This series has the perfect ending. It’s wonderful and I loved it, even though it really messed up my emotional state for several hours.
In fact I tweeted at Mary while reading the final chapters of the book:
@MaryRobinette You are absolutely wrecking my emotional state today, but I can't put the book down.
— David Hill (@DavidEsmale) June 1, 2015
I don’t think I can give a book, or a series, a better compliment than that. If you’re at all looking for something new to read, that’s a little bit different from the standard fantasy fare, and does a wonderful job of portraying a real romantic relationship between two characters while they have some amazing (and terrifying) adventures, you should pick up The Glamourist Histories books.
Oh, and how did Mary respond to my tweet?
@DavidEsmale Best Compliment Ever
— Mary Robinette Kowal (@MaryRobinette) June 1, 2015