I’ve been going through back issues of Asimov’s on my train ride, and a story by Mary Robinette Kowal caught my eye (Kiss Me Twice (PDF), I suspect?), so I figured I’d give her novels a try. So I started with Shades of Milk and Honey; I’m not familiar enough with relevant genres to be able to site it particularly well, but Jane Austen with some magic thrown in? And magic centered around creation of visual illusion set-pieces, which now that I think about it is interesting of itself: this isn’t magic as power fantasy, this is magic as an art form. At any rate, I enjoyed it, Liesl enjoyed it, so we decided to seek out the rest of the series. (The series goes under the name Glamourist Histories, which I find charming.)
And I’m glad we did, because the second and third volumes did something that I am not used to seeing in books, and that I am grateful to see. Maybe it’s the narrowness of my reading, but: I am used to reading books that don’t talk about (romantic) relationships at all. I am used to books that present a relationship as a perfunctory prize won by the hero as his (because it’s almost always a him in these situations) “natural” right. I am used to books that flesh out relationships in the courtship phase, though I don’t read as many of those as I could. And, back in the days when I read more literary fiction, I wasn’t surprised to run into books about marriages that were falling apart, from a male midlife crisis point of view.
The thing is, none of those are particularly relevant to me. I was going to say that the first is, in that there are very important parts of my life that don’t focus on my marriage; but those parts of my life still very much have to acknowledge the fact that my marriage (and my family in general, I don’t want to exclude our daughter!) is a key influence on how I spend my time. And of course I have gone through courtships.
But: Liesl and I started dating more than half of my life ago; we’ve been married for over fifteen years, and we were pretty solidly committed to each other for the last four or so years that we were dating before we got married. And, while there’s no guarantees about any of this, my guess is that my life is only about halfway over, and that we’ll be married (to each other!) for that remaining lifespan as well. So why is it so rare for me to read books that talk about happily married life? I won’t say that it’s unknown in my reading: some of Delany’s recent books present married life, in particular his latest. And the Kushiel series addresses the topic as well, though really only the third book focuses on it. Still: such books are rare, and I’m finding that rarity frustrating.
I’m not a novelist, of course, and I’m sure there are positive reasons for those choices: happy marriages don’t have the sort of external drama that lends itself to novelization. But I was really glad to see that, after starting the series with a novel that led up to the protagonist getting married, Kowal continued the series in a way that presented that marriage as being central without making the drama be about whether the marriage will succeed. Not that the marriage doesn’t spark off bits of conflict, especially in the second volume: Jane and David are still getting to know each other, and so while they’re remarkably well matched, there are still points of tension, areas where they’re figuring out each other and figuring out their marriage. But they handle this like grownups, in an entirely realistic way: sometimes things don’t go perfectly, sometimes Jane and David don’t react perfectly, but in general they talk things out and do so from a position of love and respect. Yes, not all marriages work this way; but I can say from experience that some certainly do, and it’s a model that I far prefer to a model that only presents marriage as a prize at the end of courtship or as a source of drama as it falls apart.
The other aspect of the series’s treatment of marriage that I appreciated: its portrayal of lust. I’m used to books that present sex between people who are marked as young and attractive (especially if female) and/or heroic (especially if male). These novels, however, explicitly mark Jane as not particularly conventionally attractive and as getting married later than is normal. But the novels are also quite forthright in presenting that as irrelevant: Jane and Vincent love, admire, and lust after each other. Which, again, I find both entirely true to life and charming to read.
So: Ms. Kowal, if you read this (as I suspect you will, given your adeptness at noticing mentions of your work): thank you for this series. I would have enjoyed it even without its portrayal of marriage; but that latter aspect of the series mattered to me.
(And, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure I’d also enjoy different sorts of works from you: like I said above, I really enjoyed Kiss Me Twice! Though, of course, it also has a rather nice portrayal of partnership…)
This post has not been revised since publication.