Fantastic Reviews - Fantasy Book Review
Shades of Milk and Honey cover art Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Tor hardcover - 302 pages
Copyright 2010

Cover Design by Terry Rohrbach

Book reviewed January 2011

Rating: 6/10  (Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

          It's refreshing to see a fantasy novel based on Jane Austen that takes Austen seriously, rather than merely as fodder for a goofy parody like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and all its imitators.  Shades of Milk and Honey, the first novel by Campbell Award winner Mary Robinette Kowal, is part fantasy, part romance, and all Jane Austen homage.  It should appeal to every Austen reader and to anyone who enjoys light fantasy or romance; zombie fans may stay away.

Shades of Milk and Honey takes place in an alternate version of Regency England, where one can learn to use "glamour" to create impressive optical illusions, such as bringing indoors all the images and sounds of a beautiful garden complete with birds and waterfalls.  In this universe, glamour is nearly always employed for artistic effect and seldom used for military or commercial applications.  British society as a whole is little changed by the existence of glamour.

Our heroine Jane Ellsworth (of the Dorchester Ellsworths, not far from Oxford) is a skilled glamourist, but her lack of physical beauty has left her a spinster at 28, and she cannot help envying her younger sister Melody her looks.  Jane is drawn to Mr. Dunkirk, the most appealing eligible bachelor in range, but assumes he will naturally be more interested in her beautiful sister.  As the novel begins, even Jane's talents at glamour have been overshadowed, as wealthy neighbors have employed an accomplished professional glamourist, Mr. Vincent, to magically decorate their estate for an upcoming party.  Add to the mix the strapping Captain Livingston, a childhood friend who has recently returned to the area.  The potential for romance slowly builds, but one of the possible suitors also proves dangerous.

Shades of Milk and Honey is charmingly written throughout, but I confess it took me a while to become absorbed in the story.  Midway into the book, Mr. Vincent critiques Jane's glamour in much the same terms I would have used to describe the novel to that point:

        "You are always so careful, so methodical in your thoughts and actions.  I should like to know what levels of art you could reach if you relaxed your guard."
        "I am courteous and follow the civilities which are expected of one in polite society."
        "And your glamour reflects that.  You are one of the finest natural technicians I have seen, and you have a rare eye for form; but for all that your art is lifeless."
        "Are these the words of thanks you want me to accept with grace?"
        He laughed.  "No....  I would rather have you honestly angry with me than polite."
Like Jane's glamour, Shades of Milk and Honey is proficiently written, but rather methodical through the first half.  Thankfully, it becomes significantly more emotionally involving in the second half - oddly enough, the turning point comes just at the above passage - when the romance story begins to advance in earnest.

The difficulty for me in the first portion of the novel is, while Kowal imitates Austen's writing style quite well, she does not emulate Austen's satirical edge and she lacks Austen's wit with dialogue and descriptions.  By her clever language - which often permits characters to insult one another rather egregiously without ever infringing the rules of polite Georgian society - Jane Austen can carry the reader's interest through a conversation no matter how trivial the topic.  Kowal's writing is not so inherently engaging, although she does have her moments:

        "Oh, you women are so melodramatic.  Do not expect me to catch you when you faint."
        "I would rather hit the ground.  Good day, sir."

The first half of Shades of Milk and Honey consists largely of dinner parties and dances and strawberry-picking parties, through which Kowal did not hold my attention as effectively as Jane Austen might have.  I realize I am holding Kowal to an unreasonable standard, but it is one she invited by patterning her first novel so directly after Jane Austen.

Where Kowal does prove Austen's equal is in storytelling.  Once she develops the plot to a diverting level, then the novel begins to work very well.  I found the final chapters of the book compulsively readable, and I was sorry to see it end.  The turns in the story are admittedly predictable, but then Kowal would hardly be staying faithful to Jane Austen if that were not so.  What's important is that the progression of the tale, once it gets moving, is engaging and entertaining.  I look forward to the forthcoming sequel, Glamour in Glass.

Kowal is also adept with her characterization.  Her key characters are likeable yet flawed.  In particular, the affection between Jane and her sister Melody is complicated by mutual envy, in a way that is more believable and interesting than, say, the purity of the relationship between Elizabeth and Jane in Pride and Prejudice.  Not enough of Mr. Vincent's personality comes through, however, given the important role he ends up playing in the story.

Disappointingly, Kowal's glamour turns out to be largely a McGuffin.  I find it most implausible that the magic in this universe is used only for artistic purposes.  (You may counter that the Chinese invented gunpowder and used it only for fireworks, but you'd be mistaken.)  Kowal's less-than-satisfying explanation is that it takes too much effort to sustain glamour - Jane can use glamour to make herself prettier, for example, but she can't keep it up long without fainting.  In Shades of Milk and Honey, glamour forms an essential link between certain characters, but until the final pages of the book it could easily have been replaced by another art, such as sculpture, without altering the story at all.

I recommend Shades of Milk and Honey because it makes for such pleasant reading, yet it might have benefited from a more comprehensive approach both to the magical system involved and to Jane Austen's narrative voice.

         Incidentally, the best way to enjoy Shades of Milk and Honey is on audio, with Kowal's own narration.  Kowal is a professional-caliber reader, who has narrated audiobooks by other authors.  Even if her feigned British accent slips from time to time, she is a delight to listen to.
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Copyright 2011 Aaron Hughes

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Links to other Mary Robinette Kowal reviews, articles, and websites:
Mary Robinette Kowal - author website
Mary Robinette Kowal - Wikipedia
Geeks of Note: Mary Robinette Kowal | GeekDad |
SF REVIEWS.NET: Shades of Milk and Honey / Mary Robinette Kowal
Clarkesworld Magazine : A Novel Possibility: A Conversation with Mary Robinette Kowal
Shimmer :: 13 Lucky Questions with Mary Robinette Kowal

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This page was last updated - 09 January 2011