Shades of Milk and Honey ~ Mary Robinette Kowal

  • Title: Shades of Milk and Honey
  • Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
  • Series: Glamourist Histories #1
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Source: Library
  • Reviewed by: Olga
  • Rating: 4 out of 5

Description:  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.

Review:  I enjoyed this gentle novel. It owes much to Jane Austen, one of my favorite writers. The plot is somewhat similar to Austen’s, the romantic, slightly ironic tone is down pat, and the timing is the same. But there is a deeper issue here than the paramount concern of Austen’s novels: that every young woman must get married.

Kowal uses Austen’s ambience and storyline to show us the birth of an artist, with all the labor pains and confusion inherent in the process. The love story that emerges alongside the tale of artistic integrity seems almost incidental.

The novel has been published by Tor, a publisher of SF fiction, but the magic in the book is confined to illusions, or glamour, as the characters in this alternative version of Regency England call it. Glamourists are artists who enhance the appearance of people and places. Alongside every other art form, like music and watercolors, glamour is considered an essential skill for a young woman of the upper class.

The protagonist Jane is an accomplished glamourist and the older daughter of a moderately wealthy landowner. As he has no sons, only two daughters, and the estate is entailed, the man’s heartfelt wish is to establish both his daughters in good marriages.

Sadly, Jane doesn’t hold much hope for a marriage. Although she possesses a kind heart and a sterling moral code, she is twenty-eight, unwed, and rather plain. She is settled into her role of an unattractive spinster… almost. Her beautiful artistic soul craves a soul-mate, but none is forthcoming, especially as Jane is consistently outshined by her younger sister Melody, pretty and coy but with no other accomplishments.

The sisters’ amorous adventures constitute the bulk of the novel, while their recognizable siblings’ bickering and petty jealousies counteract the cloying sweetness of a Regency romance. Fortunately, the book lacks sex scenes, which reflects the author’s good taste.

The requisite villain of the story, an unscrupulous fortune hunter camouflaging as a charming suitor, adds spice to the bland brew, but the novel’s main focus, Jane’s development as an artist, overlays the entire surface husband-hunting and provides the necessary depth and richness.

The novel is practically transparent in its outline, with no surprises for the reader, but the narration flows smoothly, and the marvelous descriptions of the glamours, interweaved with the artistic pangs of their creators, flavor the otherwise sugary tale with a piquant, faintly bohemian aura. 

A quote about Jane’s father and his attitude towards his wife: “He still cherished her from habit, but often he wished that she had somewhat more sense.” Do you recognize Austen’s sentiments?