Shades of Milk and Honey
by Mary Robinette Kowal
Review by Cathy Green
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765325563
Date: 03 August 2010 List Price $24.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Until now, Hugo nominee and 2008 Campbell Award for Best New Writer winner Mary Robinette Kowal has been known primarily as a short story writer (and voice actor and puppeteer). Her new novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, should change that. It is a fantastic novel set in Regency England that has been described as “Jane Austen with magic.” This is a fair one-line summary, but the book is so much more.
Kowal has written a small-scale domestic fantasy. This description is not meant as a criticism or to be derogatory in any way. Reading a novel that is not composed of three door-stopper volumes in which the fate of the world/universe is at stake featuring epic battles between wizards/armies/kingdoms makes a nice change of pace. Because this is a novel about middle class/upper middle class women in England in the early 1800s, the plot is focused on the issue of making a suitable marriage. In this respect, the book is very much like Pride and Prejudice, except that the number of sisters has been cut in half and Mrs. Ellsworth is not nearly as dreadful as Mrs. Bennett and Melody Ellsworth is not nearly as stupid as Lydia Bennett.
The main protagonist, Jane Ellsworth, is plain and twenty-eight, which means that she is likely doomed to spinsterhood, unlike her younger, attractive sister Melody. Jane is a talented glamourist, which is the form of magic that exists in Kowal's version of Regency England. While Jane would like to make a suitable marriage, society and circumstances tend to reinforce the notion that she is unlikely to, which in turn causes her a certain amount of jealousy when it comes to the attentions given to her sister by men such as Mr. Vincent, the professional glamourist, Captain Livingston and their new neighbor Mr. Dunkirk. Melody, in turn, is jealous of her sister and often acts accordingly, because while Melody is not as bright or as talented as Jane, she is smart enough to realize it and be aware of the fact that men could be attracted to Jane for her mind and her talents, even if Jane herself seems unaware of this.
I liked the system of magic – glamour – that Kowal set up in Shades of Milk and Honey. Kowal clearly put a lot of thought in coming up with a system of magic that would add something interesting without altering actual history. For instance, glamours get tied off to fixed points. This makes it suitable for a mural in a room, but not as camouflage for an army or navy, since armies and navies are typically in motion a great deal of the time. Also, while glamour creates a light effect, it does not actually provide any more light than what actually exists in the room, so people still need candles and electricity will still be invented. (Mary Robinette Kowal has talked about this extensively in various appearances and interviews such as her reading at the 2010 NASFiC and a recent interview with Mur Lafferty on Lafferty's I Should Be Writing podcast #153
I enjoyed the fact Jane, for all her skills and intelligence, was somewhat clueless when it came to romance and thus unaware of various persons' interest in her for reasons other than her skills as a glamourist or conversationalist. Given that the central theme of the book is making a suitable marriage, I will not go into any more detail about the plot, as I do not wish to spoil the ending. However, I will say that for a drawing room book of manners fantasy, the climax is surprisingly action-packed.
This is an ideal book to give to someone already predisposed towards liking Jane Austen or Regency Romance. However, it is not necessary to be familiar with either Austen or the Regency Romance genre in order to enjoy this book. Shades of Milk and Honey is a beautifully written fantasy of manners that should appeal to anyone who enjoys the fantasy genre.