Shades of Milk and Honey

Well my goodness, what a strange and charming little volume! Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal is described as "Pride and Prejudice meets Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" -- though I would have suggested Sense and Sensibility as the Austen novel in question (if only for the sisters relationship, though other elements clearly owe their foundations to P&P) and the magical element is not nearly as strong in this as in Jonathan Strange. Still, that vague quote will at least clue in a reader to the fact that this is not your ordinary Jane Austen wannabe romantic story. Kowal evidently is quite a Janeite, having thanked the online Jane Austen community in her acknowledgements, and this book could certainly be called an Austenuation, given its tone, character similarities, and occasional spellings. The magical/fantasy element consists of the insertion of "glamour," which I'm sure I will not describe properly, as I'm not sure I even understood it properly. Glamour appears to be a magic pulled from the air that one can manipulate into visual displays -- whether this be the addition of small amounts that would add something extra to an existing item (allow trees in a painting to sway in the wind or give the illusion of light playing against books) or something a bit larger (create an entire theatrical tableau vivant around people, a "glamural" large-scale work, or curtaining off people using folds of glamour so they disappear from view). The thing is, in this world, it doesn't appear as though manipulating glamour is exactly a highly prized skill... at least for men. It seems to be something in the feminine arena, used mostly for improvements in the home, as it doesn't appear to create anything substantial, simply an enhanced visual. There are a few well-regarded artists who work with the medium but, as artists, they are still working at a kind of trade and therefore are a notch above some, but not quite on the level with the usual gentlemen and ladies who do not require a pesky occupation to keep them financially solvent.

Jane Ellsworth is twenty-eight and has almost resigned herself to the life of a spinster... almost. There is still a desperate hope in her heart that despite her age and lack of beauty, she might still make a match and not end her days serving as a tutor to her beautiful younger sister's sure-to-come children. Jane has two things in her favor -- her father has set aside a bit of a dowry for each of his daughters (as he's smart enough to know that they will need this, given that his estate is entailed away) and Jane herself is a somewhat accomplished glamourist. Not that she would own the description as an official title, but even she knows that she can manipulate glamour relatively well and as this talent is appreciated in women to make a home comfortable, to entertain, etc., there is a hope that it enhances her marriageable value. Her younger sister Melody is quite a beauty and beloved by Jane (though the reader rather has to take Jane at her word on Melody's good points, as Melody comes off as a selfish, flighty, and rather vapid creature). Their parents are quite the image of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, though at least Mr. Ellsworth has a bit more sense when it comes to providing for his daughters and keeping them out of trouble as far as that dreaded city of Bath is concerned.

The neighborhood is small, but still has a number of interesting personages within. First, there is Mr. Dunkirk, of whom Jane thinks rather highly, though she also knows her sister feels the same and is immediately inclined to allow her sister the conquest. When his sister Beth comes to visit, Jane develops a fondness for the much younger girl and assists Beth in her basic study of glamour; this quietly delights Mr. Dunkirk, who has a real appreciation for Jane's talents and more than hints that such talents are what truly make a comfortable home. The local elite family is the FitzCameron family, presided over by Lady FitzCameron, a widow with an unmarried daughter... which is why her nephew, Captain Livingston, is in town... a rather dashing and rakish young man in the service of His Majesty's royal navy. Also a guest in the FitzCameron household, we have the standoffish and gruff Mr. Vincent, a noted glamourist who is being employed by Lady FitzCameron to create a large-scale and grand glamural in her home.

While the novel lacked a real Austen-like focus on social commentary and deeper and yet witty observations, Kowal was able to create a heroine who felt quite like a woman who could have existed in an Austen novel, and one who would have merited the high opinion of those sensible souls around her. Jane is quiet and demure, keeping her shrewder thoughts to herself and able to keep confidences (while yet struggling with the question of whether or not to share them with others if only in the best interest of those concerned who might come to harm). She values her sister so highly that she is constantly trying to repair any breaches that occur, though none of them are Jane's fault. Melody is an incredibly annoying chit of a girl, whereas Beth is only a trifle better, if only because she manages to act decently well on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps the more surprising thing (when it concerns comparing Shades of Milk and Honey to any Austen or other Regency novel) is the fact that for all of Jane's concerns about ending a spinster, she actually plays the field a whole lot more than she realizes. The reader will understand pretty quickly who her ideal match would be, but Jane seems to hold two men in high regard for quite some time -- and indeed, even when the real love-match becomes clear, the relationship with the other fellow is not quite closed off (which is, perhaps, a bit more realistic). There's also a rather ridiculous scene filled with galloping horses and duels that feels a bit over-the-top in this particular novel, but perhaps one can forgive it for the sake of fun. It is a pity, though, that there was not more depth to this story beyond the romantic storylines, as I believed Kowal to be quite capable of greater societal observation than was evinced in this volume. The limited mention of how glamour can be used to mask falling fortunes was not quite enough (or at least it didn't ever come to much) and should have merited a greater exploration.

All in all, I would say that Kowal's novel is rather charming, though Regency purists will not be particularly pleased with all this glamour stuff. As I have noted, I do wish that the magical element actually played a bit more of a role in society as something necessary, as opposed to the surface delight that glamour epitomizes. It just doesn't seem to be necessary in the way I would think such an addition would have to be -- but perhaps in future novels of this world (as one always assumes there must be more, nowadays), we'll get more on that subject. Modern readers who can pick up both Georgette Heyer and light fantasy will be able to enjoy Shades of Milk and Honey as a pleasant diversion and I'll be happy to read the next item that comes from Kowal's pen.

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