One of you people accused me of reading lots of romance novels. Wrongly, but not without just cause: I know some specialized vocabulary. I actually know a lot of specialized vocabulary; for instance, thanks to Howard Tayler, I know that "ablative meat" refers to people who only exist to be shot ("ablative" is my favorite word of all time - 'grats to Tayler for incorporating it into complete sentences, it's harder than it seems)
But specifically, I exhibited knowledge of vocabulary from the 19th century, like "estate" and "majority" in the sense they were meant at the time (that is, their proper sense). I don't really know the specific source of this knowledge, but I can say with some confidence that it didn't come from romance novels set in that era. Nothing to disparage that genre - it's not my particular focus, but it's perfectly fine in its own way just as fantasy is in its own way. I will say that I've read at least one pure romance novel - it was free on the Kindle, like so many other books; it was not regency-era romance, it involved vampires and witches and really wasn't that good, but hell it was free. I don't even remember the title, though I suppose you can look it up in my reading history on Goodreads (link to the right, under "Recent Reads").
Today, I finished something else that might be categorized as a regency romance novel, not unlike books with titles like "At the Duke's Pleasure" or something similar, which seem to be remarkably common these days (I may not read them, but I fold signs for them every week at work). Not having read any selection of the more common romances, I cannot with confidence compare them to Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal. I have some small confidence that they do not involve any magic, even to the relatively minor degree to which Kowal's book does. And judging by their covers, I speculate that they include a lot more, uh, naked time as well.
First, some proper and fair disclosure. I might not in the normal order of things have discovered Ms. Kowal's book; the author gained my attention after several appearances on my favorite podcast, Writing Excuses - yes, this podcast has been influential on me, and yes, I'm trying to limit its ability to dictate my behavior, but no, I do not allow my intent to maintain personal integrity to prevent me from discovering new and interesting things that happen to come from this particular source. Mary Robinette Kowal demonstrated a remarkable intelligence and insight in the podcast that caught my attention - she does work with puppetry, and has a very different set of insights compared to the general run of podcasters, so it seemed all the more insightful for being unique. So naturally I eventually got around to reading her book (one of them, anyway; Scenting the Dark isn't available on the kindle).
In five words, I was very much pleased. It's not exactly the sort of thing I go out of my way for, but I don't regret the experience. Shades of Milk and Honey is, at its core, a very Austin-like romance story (and no, I haven't actually read any Jane Austin myself, but I have seen a movie or two courtesy of my dear wife Kathryn). It incorporates magic, but treats it as art, and as a story element it's no more extraordinary than painting; indeed, in a more mundane setting, painting could and likely would have served the very same purpose for the plot. I liked Kowal's glamour, however; it worked well as a magic and as an art, I had no trouble accepting it as part of society. She did touch on some interesting applications for the military, but since none of the story actually took place in a military setting, these complex military glamours were not in the least important to the story and in the end didn't matter. It's interesting to wonder how they might be applied, of course; that's maybe one of the hallmarks of a really great magic system. Kowal applied it thoroughly and well to the domestic settings of the book, like any properly developed magic would be in such a society, leaving no obvious holes to leave the reader asking, "Why don't they just fix that with magic?" like one might otherwise have asked.
But enough analysis of her magic system. As I said, it's not terribly important to the story. The actual story is a great romance story; right up to the end, it's never quite clear how it's going to work out. Oh, I had suspicions, of course; I patently refuse to even hint towards spoiling, since I doubt many of my followers have read the book, but I was pleased with the twist(s). It(they?) was(were?) sufficiently foreshadowed; in fact, I could have stood for it to come with less warning, but then again I also figured out the entire plot of Shutter Island before ever setting eye to page, so maybe I just overthink and overpredict things - not a fair comparison; the preview for that movie broadcast its twists for all the world to see, and by the time they revealed the name of the villain's name in the book (an anagram of the hero's) I had my suspicions confirmed. I digress.
The ending was quite nice; I shall not spoil anything, but it worked out well. Maybe just a hint of Deus ex Machina, but perfectly appropriate for the subject matter. It kept me guessing well into the second or third act, if you choose to define in in a three-act structure. All of Kowal's characters were very believable and richly developed, which made them slightly less predictable; Mr. Dunkirk in particular was well-developed, and yet continued to hide further depth that only really began to surface later on. I think it's hard to develop a reserved, private person like Dunkirk, but Kowal did it very well, despite only showing him through the somewhat oblivious filter of Jane Ellsworth. You might think that Jane was a little too oblivious for a person of her age and intelligence, but perhaps getting to 28 without any serious suitors could change a 1820's-era lady's self-image and perceptions of others' behavior. I had no trouble with disbelief, willingly suspended or otherwise.
In short, the book was good and I recommend it to (a) people who like regency-era romances (b) people who like low-magic fantasy and (c) people who like books a lot and want to keep their selection varied. It's not so long that you have to worry about devoting a lot of time to it; I probably spent around 8 or 9 hours reading it, all together. That's maybe two or three evenings if you like reading a lot. A week at most if you're pressed for time. Well worth it, in any case, I assure you.
The main downside is that, if you read very much literature with archaic language, it will only reinforce any existing effects those books may have on you. I am perfectly aware that I have this problem. With any luck, I won't end up reading more of these books until this linguistic style has a chance to work itself out of my subconscious.