Book: “Shades of Milk and Honey” by Mary Robinette Kowal
Publishing Info: Tor Book, August 2010
Where Did I Get this Book: the library!
Book Description: “Shades of Milk and Honey” is exactly what we could expect from Jane Austen if she had been a fantasy writer: “Pride and Prejudice” meets “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.” It is an intimate portrait of a woman, Jane, and her quest for love in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality.
Jane and her sister Melody vie for the attentions of eligible men, and while Jane’s skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face. When Jane realizes that one of Melody’s suitors is set on taking advantage of her sister for the sake of her dowry, she pushes her skills to the limit of what her body can withstand in order to set things right—and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.
Review: As a fan of Jane Austen, I routinely find myself picking up books that have any hint of similarities. And as the description with this one promised a mix of Jane Austen PLUS fantasy, I knew I would have to read it immediately.
In many ways, Jane lives in typical Regency England. Manners, gentlemen and ladies, balls, and lots of sitting in breakfast rooms gossiping about one’s neighbors. Except, to be a proper, accomplished lady, alongside skills in embroidery, painting, and music, one must also master the art of glamour. Described as folding and weaving light, a glamourist is able to create magical scenes and movement, often for the purposes of impressing one’s neighbors at dinner parties. It seems equivalent with hiring a master painter to create unique portraits for one’s family, essentially. And while Jane’s sister Melody received the looks and charm of the family, Jane is the sister skilled in this specific art.
I really enjoyed the descriptions of this glamour magic. It is such a unique idea and seems to have endless applications. It’s curious seeing it primarily as an art form, as I would imagine there would have to be many other more practical uses for something like this, other than just decorating rich people’s houses. But, like many historical “manners” stories, we are mostly focused on the very privileged lives of our gentry main characters, so I guess seeing it mainly as a form of art makes sense. The whole idea is fascinating and the descriptions of the process of weaving light and the end results were engaging.
As for characters, they were fairly typical fare for a book that is purporting itself as a “Jane Austen read-alike.” It was an interesting mix of storylines and character types from both “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility.” For fans of Jane Austen’s work and those two books specifically, it was fun spotting the tie-ins. Jane, herself, was a likeable heroine, if perhaps lacking some of Elizabeth Bennet’s spunk. Vincent, too, plays the role of the broody leading man effectively. His backstory was interesting and I enjoyed learning more about his character and motivations.
There were a few problems with the writing itself. For the most part, the language is descriptive and elegant. However, there were times where it seemed that the author couldn’t decide how fully to commit to the language of the time. Words would go back and forth from being spelled in the traditional manner to the modern. And there were even a few words of the time that it seemed the author didn’t fully understand. She used the word “droll” in place of the word “dour” it seemed, several times using “droll” to describe a character who was behaving in a gloomy and stern manner. This was frustrating to see in what was otherwise a very competent novel.
All in all, language quibbles aside, I very much enjoyed this book and will be checking out the next one. As all of Jane Austen’s stories were one-offs, it will be interesting to see what the author does with this story, now that we are beyond the point that any of those books cover.
Rating 7: A very unique magic system, if only marked down for some peculiar language mistakes.
Find “Shades of Milk and Honey” at your library using WorldCat.