Review: Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey

Written: Mary Robinette Kowal [website]

Published: Tor, Hardcover

When: August 3rd, 2010

ISBN: 9780765325563

Obtained via: Purchase

Cover blurb: Shades of Milk and Honey is an intimate portrait of Jane Ellsworth, a woman ahead of her time in a version of Regency England 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 she had lived in a world where magic worked.

* * *

I have to be honest with you – this post will be more of an anecdote than a review and it will probably contain spoilers, if you care about those things.

I found my time with Shades of Milk and Honey to be a pleasant distraction from some (hopefully) good news that’s had me waiting on pins and needles this week. Jane lives in an entirely different world than we do today. (Well, than I do at any rate. I won’t speak for the rest of you.) I’ve never once had the desire to live in Regency England. I’ll gladly confess to not having read a single word of Jane Austen, and to not missing the experience at all.

Jane is everything I can’t stand in a main character – a pushover who is too polite to stand up for herself, a “proper lady” who follows every expectation of society and etiquette. I just want to scream when, after her sister selfishly snaps at her for the umpteenth time, Jane finds herself thinking how she must comfort her sister in her pique. Ugh! Such a goody two-shoes!

Yet there are still things about Jane that I can identify with: a passionate urge to make whatever she’s working on perfect; a plain face; being told she’d be an old maid at 28 (Though I was 26, and I’ll grant that means different things today then it did then.); and a pretty-faced, self-absorbed younger sister who steals the spotlight – at home and without.

In classic Jane Austen style, the ladies who are the main characters of our story spend (nearly) the entire time talking about dresses, trying to catch a husband, and making sure they’re not left alone too long with a member of the opposite sex. Intriguingly – and the thing that drew me to the story – is that, along with such things as music and painting, the magic known as glamour is also a womanly art in this time.

Glamour is a subtle magic used to beautify the home and for use in theater. In one scene, Jane creates a grove of trees in her bedroom, and in another she causes a soft breeze and a hint of honeysuckle to blow delicately in her family’s drawing room. (I wish I could pull off that trick!) Glamour is stationary and exceedingly gentle, and so is used mostly by women. It was the sample chapter showing Jane’s working of glamour that first grabbed my attention and made me want to read this book. The trailer reminded me that I’d wanted to read it and kept me intrigued. Then, it was this post that sealed the deal and made me buy it.

If this review sounds harsh in any way, believe me that is not my intention. I merely wish to convey that, even while so many things in this story are things that I wouldn’t customarily seek out in a story, I immensely enjoyed the time I spent with it. I’ll even admit to laughing out loud after reading the last page – which I doubt was something the author intended.

Shades of Milk and Honey is an “urban” fantasy for the Regency period*: all the magic in a city setting but with no gun-wielding goddesses of war and pain, no tattoos, no promiscuous sex, and no gratuitous deaths. Surprisingly, I found this a nice break. (I think I’m getting burnt out on UF.) What we do have is a nice, civilized magic system set amidst all the tedious societal politeness that most of us think would be nice to visit but would find rather quaint and annoying were it real life.

(*Hush, now. I know the genre is “alternate history”.  I’m trying to make a point by contrasting here.)

I urge you to give Shades of Milk and Honey a try. It is a charming tale, a quick and easy read. And the formatting is just gorgeous. I applaud the typesetter on this one, and that’s rarely something that makes me stop to think.

I suppose you’re wondering about my laugh-out-loud moment, huh? It’s really very simple, but will probably be lost on anyone who doesn’t know me directly.


No, seriously. Don’t read any further unless you want to be spoiled.

Got it?

Okay. I told you so.

You see, Jane spends the entire book fascinated with her neighbor, Mr. Dunkirk. He is portrayed as a gentle, thoughtful soul who dotes on his little sister and holds the art of glamour in high regard. In contrast, the glamourist Mr. Vincent is a brusque, off-putting fellow who seems to care much more for his art than he does for anything (or anyone) else. He spends most of his time glaring and skulking about.

Shockingly, at the end of the story, Jane ends up not with Mr. Dunkirk but with Mr. Vincent. I closed the book and sat thinking to myself, “That doesn’t make any sense. Why would Jane decide  to be with the surly artist when she’s spent all that time swooning over the gentle neighbor? What woman of Jane’s time period would choose to be with such a man?”

That’s when I laughed out loud. You see, it occurred to me that Jane is not the only one who married a surly, if talented, artist. If I saw merit in a great, hulking man with a brusque nature and artist’s hands, then why couldn’t Jane? Perhaps she and I aren’t so different after all!

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3 Replies to “Review: Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal”

  1. Your review makes me smile, particularly the spoilery bits. Read the first paragraph of the acknowledgements to see why.

    Also, yes, the typesetting makes me very happy. Credit goes to Nicola Ferguson.

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