Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Already known for her impressive short stories, Mary Robinette Kowal debuts as a novelist with Shades of Milk and Honey, an alternative period romance set during the British Regency. Miss Jane Ellsworth tries to forget her plain looks by studying magical glamour; already twenty-eight years old, Jane is on the gloomy edge of spinsterhood. She also worries about her sister, Melody: flirtatious, beautiful and silly, the girl is certain to get into trouble. But trouble only really gets started when the mysterious Mr. Vincent, a serious, talented practitioner of glamour, comes to stay in a nearby mansion.

A promising idea
Being an enormous fan of Jane Austen, I was very excited to read this novel. I hoped to encounter another Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, except from a female perspective: something elegant, witty, and full of period details. Adding magic – called ‘glamour’ – as another accomplishment for young upper-class women had the potential to add an entirely new dimension to the rituals of courtship and social nicety, and could provide a refreshing change from the many non-fantasy Regency romances already available. This would be great, I thought.

Lacks Austen’s wit, sparkle, and courage
Unfortunately, the reason Jane Austen’s novels resonate with so many people today is because her novels are more than just the story of an unlikely woman finding love. Austen had impeccable comedic timing, a gift for quirky characterization, and, most importantly, a sharp tongue with which she criticized her own hypocritical society. Elizabeth Bennett is an independent, rebellious, and sassy young woman. Jane Ellsworth, on the other hand, is bland, priggish, and timid.

The only character of interest to me was Melody, the younger sister. Though a little stupid, Melody always follows her heart and has an endearingly wicked tendency to lie in order to get what she wants. Apart from Melody, however, Kowal’s characters are uninspired, and the clunky writing is no better. Although the pace picks up at the climax, Kowal then runs into a different problem: Jane’s decision in the end seems entirely out of keeping with her cautious, sensible personality.

Magic is an after-thought
Worst of all, perhaps, for a fantasy reviewer is that the magic in Shades of Milk and Honey makes no significant impact on Jane’s society. Despite being able to change temperature and light by glamour, Jane and her peers only use glamour as an art with which to decorate the house. Kowal could have as easily made Jane a painter or a pianist; the absence of magic would leave this book almost entirely the same. The most disappointing part is that Shades of Milk and Honey could have been a different and far more interesting novel, had a little more thought gone into the magic system.

Why should you read this book?
Shades of Milk and Honey
is not a terrible book; it’s just mediocre. If you’re already a fan of Regency romance, you will likely enjoy it. If you like Jane Austen, you might be disappointed. And if you prefer your fantasy to be full of adventure, style, and intrigue, you had better avoid this one altogether.

About Caleigh Minshall

Caleigh Minshall
Caleigh is a Canadian publishing enthusiast who was introduced to fantasy by Brian Jacques, Lloyd Alexander, David Eddings and Anne McCaffery (not age-appropriate!). Right now she teaches English to unruly French teens, but her next adventure is to return home and study for an MA in English literature at the University of Victoria. Caleigh also has a personal blog where she writes about the publishing industry, internship advice, and other stuff she thinks is cool.

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6 comments

  1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who wasn’t terribly impressed with it

  2. I liked this book a lot, but I do think it requires the reader to disassociate the book from Jane Austen’s writing; Jane Austen is an extremely high bar to reach. I really liked the unique magic system, and there are hints that in the sequel, glamour won’t solely be used to decorate.

    • If that’s the case, I’ll still be really interested in the sequel. I thought Shades had great potential but just kind of squelched along in practice. I hope the main character changes, too. I think part of my bitterness stems from the fact that I just loathed Jane, haha!

      Jane Austen is a high bar to reach but when it comes to storylines like this — no danger, slow pace of events, revolves around miscommunication and timid courtship — Austen seems like the only bar worth reaching for, to me. Without witty writing and sparkling/relate-able characters, I think this sort of plot would fall flat — not enough on the line. Particularly if you’re trying to edge into the fantasy audience, since we’re more used to action and adventure than those who prefer straight romances!

      • As for the sequel, I’m linking to Kowal’s preview of the second book: http://www.maryrobinettekowal.com/faqs/about-shades-of-milk-and-honey/#faq_34

        I think there were a few times where the characters discuss why certain glamour would not work on the battlefield…which led me to think that someone will definitely try in the second book!

        I’m generally not a huge fan of reading about women socializing, gossiping, or attending events for the purpose of finding a husband. And, yes, Austen’s books were about much more than that, though my least favorite thing tended to be the period. How dreadful to live like that! The thing about Shades of Milk and Honey is that it hit a chord with me–if I were stuck in the Regency period (and were rich and/or a nobleperson), it would be SO MUCH more interesting if I got to learn glamour!

        When I started the book, it took me a little while to get into it. I had just recently finished The Samaritan by Fred Venturini and Horns by Joe Hill, where the characters really immerse you in their thoughts. It was strange, then, to start a book where the protagonist kept the reader at bay and didn’t confess her innermost thoughts. Still, the book really grew on me, and if it lacked Austen’s wit (though I thought there was more of it towards the end–Jane had some choice words in the climax), it more than made up for it in charm. I also liked the whole bait and switch thing, but I suppose I can’t really discuss it here, for fear of spoilers!

        • I did enjoy the ending, you’re right. And I know Kowal is a pretty well-regarded writer for her shorts, so I think I’ll keep an eye on her next book regardless of how I felt about this one.

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