Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal

>> Wednesday, April 24, 2013

TITLE: Shades of Milk and Honey
AUTHOR: Mary Robinette Kowal

PAGES: 304

SETTING: Alternate version of Regency England
TYPE: Fantasy romance
SERIES: Starts a series

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.
"...the sort of tale we would expect from Jane Austen…if only she had been a fantasy writer." is optimistic, but illustrative. This is Austenland with magic, Regency England as it might have been if, in addition to being able to sketch and play an instrument, accomplished young ladies had been expected to be proficient in creating illusions using a force called 'glamour'.

In this world, Jane Ellsworth and her sister, Melody, navigate society's strictures and try to find themselves husbands. Jane is the plain, sedate sister, almost an old-maid, but is extremely talented at manipulating glamour. Melody is beautiful and vivacious, and even though she's pretty crap at magic, everyone expects her to make a great match. Jane loves her, but is increasingly annoyed by her thoughtlessness.

And that's it, really. There are a number of potentially elegible men, parties and semi-accidental meetings, nice and not-so-nice neighbours, all with slight twists to what their equivalents would have been in an Austen novel.

I felt quite mildly about it all. I did really like the concept of bringing magic into the setting, and I liked how Kowal did it. The idea of glamour integrates surprisingly well into the Regency-style society, and shapes the characters in interesting ways.

Unfortunately, the story itself is a bit blah. I found Jane a tiny bit dull, I'm afraid. There needs to be a little sparkle there for a character to be interesting, and it wasn't there in Jane at all. The romance was just as unexciting. The concept of it is romantic, and if you just described the bare bones to me I'd tell you I'd love to read it, but the execution wasn't great. Mainly, we don’t see the process of falling in love, so it felt unsatisfying, and I found it hard to care.

That was the main thing, but I had several other niggles. The pacing was weird... most of the book was quite gentle, with no 'big' things happening, but then when the final resolution comes, there are all sorts of chases and people waving guns around, which was a bit disconcerting. I also found Kowal's conceit of sticking in weirdly-spelled words every now and then (just a few, like , 'shew' for 'show', or 'surprize', or “chuse”) strange, and a bit too self-consciously Austenesque.

I don't regret reading this, but I don't think I'll continue with the series.



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