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.