Shades of Milk and Honey is an intimate portrait of Jane Ellsworth, a woman ahead of her time in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality. But despite the prevalence of magic in everyday life, other aspects of Dorchester’s society are not that different: Jane and her sister Melody’s lives still revolve around vying for the attentions of eligible men.
Jane resists this fate, and rightly so: while her skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face, and therefore wins the lion’s share of the attention. At the ripe old age of twenty-eight, Jane has resigned herself to being invisible forever. But when her family’s honor is threatened, she finds that she must push her skills to the limit in order to set things right--and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.
This debut novel from an award-winning talent scratches a literary itch you never knew you had. Like wandering onto a secret picnic attended by Pride and Prejudice and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Shades of Milk and Honey is precisely the sort of tale we would expect from Jane Austen…if only she had been a fantasy writer.
Mary Robinette Kowal's debut novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, is described as "Jane Austen with magic" -- while I wouldn't go quite that far, Kowal's premise sets Shades apart from typical Austen-esque tributes and retellings. In an age when women were taught all manner of drawing room accomplishments in the hope of securing a good marriage, the most desirable skill of all is the use and manipulation of glamour. Glamour folds are pulled from the atmosphere and woven into murals, used to enhance art or redecorate a room, create skits, or even change an individual's appearance. At the age of twenty-eight and plain of face, Jane Ellsworth is used to being overlooked in favor of her fairer sister Melody's fine form. But plain Jane possesses a skill her more beautiful sister cannot hope to surpass -- she is gifted and skilled glamourist. When Jane's impressive skill unwittingly draws the attention of not one but two gentlemen, arousing Melody's ire, driving a wedge between the formerly inseperable sisters. Jane finds herself navigating the murky waters of previously unimaginable romantic possibility while using all her skill and wits to save her rasher sister from making a tragic error in judgment.
What's most refreshing about Kowal's debut is how she peppers her story with Austen-inspired references without resorting to a straight retelling of a classic storyline. And the subtle use of glamour is an inspired touch -- going into the novel I expected an out-and-out fantasy, and was instead pleasantly surprised at the way Kowal develops glamour as a craft, a skill to be learned and practiced rather than an arbitrary or convenient plot device. Kowal possesses a decent grasp of the style and tone of the time period; however, she has an unfortunate habit of utilizing antiquated spellings of common words such as "shew" instead of "show" that weigh down her otherwise mostly serviceable prose. Her plotting and characterization could also use refining and tightening. The novel opens strong but lags in the second act, while the third and final section possesses such a tone of suspense and almost high adventure that while enjoyable is something of a surprise given the strict drawing room parameters of the storyline's setup.
Anyone familiar with Austen's novels or the films upon which they are based will recognize certain characters or story beats within Kowal's world. There is the henpecked, harried father whose estate is entailed away from his daughters and the flighty mother suffering from unspecified "nervous ailments" (Mr. and Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice), the flighty sister obsessed with transient beauty (suggestive of Marianne in Sense and Sensibility), and engagements kept secret from fear of scandal (think Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill in Emma). But my favorite nod to all things Austen is the character of Jane Ellsworth herself, an amalgamation of Elinor Dashwood's sense, Elizabeth Bennet's intelligence, and Anne Elliot's quiet fortitude. While I could wish for a less repetitive self-doubt/examination, Kowal sketches all of Jane's strengths and weaknesses in a highly relatable and period-appropriate fashion. I would've preferred more time devoted to the development of Jane's relationship with her chosen beau, but those issues aside as a light, diverting twist designed to feed the public's hunger for all things Austen related and inspired, Shades of Milk and Honey delivers a unique offering. With the promise of Jane's increasing confidence and aptitude as a glamourist, I look forward to the sequel!