Debut Review: Shades of Milk and Honey


Shades of Milk and Honey
by Mary Robinette Kowal
Tor Books

Hardcover, provided by Tor books (along with an advance ARC copy) — thank you!

While this will mostly be a positive review, I had one major problem with Shades of Milk and Honey that threatened to destroy my enjoyment of it altogether. And that was the impossible-to-ignore association it has with the writings of Jane Austen.

All the reviews I’ve read of this novel have been overwhelmingly positive. But how many of those reviewers are die-hard Jane fans, like myself? I really don’t know. I’ve read all six of Jane Austen’s novels multiple times, plus I have multiple movie adaptations: two of Pride and Prejudice, three of Emma (counting Clueless), two of Sense and Sensibility, and one each of the others. I looked forward to this novel with great anticipation.

This novel’s major hook is that it is “the fantasy novel that Jane Austen might have written.” However, Jane Austen gave her novels simple titles like Persuasion, Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park. Jane Austen’s works never (that I can recall) included terms like modiste or ton. Jane Austen mostly wrote about country gentleman families, not the nobility, except to make gentle fun of them (Sir Elliot, Lady Dalrymple, Lady Bertram, Lady de Bourgh). Jane Austen never wrote about duels, or secret identities, men with murder on their consciences, even very many alarming situations. This novel has all of the above.

Sound pretty good? Actually, it is. But the whole Jane Austen thing was an incredible distraction for me. I realized it was interfering with my enjoyment of the novel, but the fact that the author preserved Jane Austen’s spellings (surprize, chuse, shew) kept jarring me out of the story. And the author is Mary Robinette Kowel, who won the Campbell award and whose short stories I’ve always enjoyed. With an extreme effort, I pushed — no, shoved — the whole Jane Austen thing aside and finished the book on its own merits.

And on its own merits, it’s a pretty damned good book.

Shades of Milk and Honey is about Jane, a plain young woman who is growing older, and who is resigning herself to life as a spinster. Her much-younger sister Melody is quite beautiful, but lacks in talent. Jane is the talented one, and has remarkable skill with the magical ability known as glamour. Both sisters are attracted to their neighbor, the gentle Mr. Dunkirk. Other people in the neighborhood include Mr. Dunkirk’s younger sister, Beth, Captain Livingston and his aunt, Lady FitzCameron, and Beth’s glamour tutor, Mr. Vincent.

I can certainly see heavy Jane Austen influences. An entailed estate. A ridiculous noblewoman. A leading man who is quite unremarkable at first. Jane Austen influences don’t bother me. I’ve written a novel that was influenced by Jane Austen (and James Bond!) myself. It’s when it ventures into becoming a homage or fan fiction when I seem to have a problem. And since such novels are popular, it’s probably just me.

In spite of my struggles, I had a hard time putting this novel down. I finished it well in advance of today’s date, which is the release date. Ms. Kowal’s concept of magic is wonderfully imaginative. You pull folds out of the ether and use them to create three-dimension virtual worlds (forgive the modern term) that are complete with sounds, smells and sensations (such as a gentle breeze). People often decorate their mansions with glamour, but it is not considered to be in good taste to overdo it. Nor is it in good taste to use glamour to increase one’s physical beauty, but of course people do it anyway. How fun is that!

The romance aspect of this novel was a stealth romance, because the main male protagonist is not at all evident, at first. And toward the end, he reveals his love in a way that is truly novel and unexpected. Up until that point, Jane and he (whose name I will not reveal) butt heads continually, and not necessarily in that sparkling Jane Austen style. They really are butting heads. But as it turns out, that’s only because they end up having so much in common. I could see the concept of the foil in this novel. Jane appears sweet and thoughtful next to her selfish sister. The self-absorbed Captain Livingston makes Mr. Dunkirk look good. And so on.

All in all, this is a fun fantasy, thought-provoking, not too heavy in drama, and with stakes that are personal rather than world-threatening. I can happily recommend it, along with Ms. Kowal’s short fiction. For a fun taste of her work, try the delightful “First Flight“, published at Tor.com. You can also read her award-winning story, “Evil Robot Monkey” — which is very touching and sad — and many of her other short stories at her short fiction page.

16 thoughts on “Debut Review: Shades of Milk and Honey

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Debut Review: Shades of Milk and Honey « Tia Nevitt -- Topsy.com

  2. I just finished it, and wow this was not a good book. Thunkingly written, I kept putting it down because the language was just so wrong that my eyes rolled too far back in my head to continue reading. An attempted mash-up of modern and Regency language? Uh, no. It’s like trying to fuse an Audi and a horse-drawn carriage, and moves just as jarringly.

    I love Austen, but I also love fantasy, and this failed badly on all counts. The characters were boring as hell and one-note, and the magic (though nifty) was totally inconsequential. I kind of hated everyone in it by the end.

    Read a few chapters before buying, or get from the library. I’m ruing the $16 I spent on my copy.

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    • While the whole Jane Austen thing made me crazy, I did find that the magic had consequence at the end. It is definitely a more gothic style than a Jane Austen style.

      I’m just beginning to think that Jane Austen-derived fiction is not for me.

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      • The magic at the end was more of a parlor trick than anything, wasn’t it? I don’t want to spoil anything here, but the key piece of evidence in the final scene ends up being meaningless. The scene could have easily been written without magic, just with some other contrived method of getting all of the plot pieces in place.

        But the most maddening bit for me was the writing, which almost felt like mockery it was so artless. And why does Jane constantly describe people as good or endearing, when they are so clearly neither of those things? Why is the main character apparently an dimwit pushover? If this were Austen’s work, I expect Jane would have been a secondary or tertiary character at best.

        Jane Austen did write Northanger Abbey, so she does know Gothic, and this wasn’t anywhere near that level of quality — if you’re looking for good Austen-ish work, try “Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman”.

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        • And Northanger Abbey was Jane Austen’s parody of gothic romances! I have read the Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman series, and while I read all three books and enjoyed them somewhat, they didn’t entirely work for me, either. So far, none of the Jane Austen derived works I’ve read have been up to my standards. Which, of course were set by JA herself, so this is hardly surprising.

          If I do read any more JA derivations, I think I’ll stick to historical novels. The editors of a historical imprint will know Jane Austen’s work better, and I think some of the problems I had with the voice and the story elements would have been edited out. Or perhaps it would have been rejected, entirely.

          I do think it is a shame that the publisher chose to burden a new author with such a lofty height to live up to. That’s what I was trying to set aside as I wrote this review.

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          • Well, the author herself said that the idea for the book came to her while reading a JA novel and she started wondering what kind of book JA would’ve written if she’d lived in a world with magic, so it’s not entirely the publisher’s fault for touting it as such.

            This book is getting enough mixed reviews that I feel like I need to get this at the library rather than drop a chunk of change for the hardcover.

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            • Definitely, get it at the library. Or go to a bookstore and read the first three or four chapters — I actually read the first chapter when the PDF popped up earlier this summer, and I guess I was blinded by the magic-Austen concept, because I STILL bought the book.

              The Fitzwilliam Darcy series is the best one I’ve seen, but I agree that it also went off the rails a bit — again, with the Gothic influences (in the middle book). Historical imprints are probably safer.

              I think my problem is that I genuinely think that the book is not very good. Even if you peel all of the Austen influences out, it’s very passive and flat.

              This might be a bit spoilery if you’re Austen-familiar, but frankly if you are familiar with Austen then you’ve already seen the rest of the book coming from page 50 anyhow: I tried to explain it to a friend and ended up with “Marianne and Elinor Dashwood meet Wickham, a quasi-Darcy, and Mr Rochester. Predictability ensues. But it’s Marianne without the warmth and charm, and Elinor with a pathetic slavish loyalty to Marianne, so they kind of suck. Then fuse Georgiana with Lydia, chuck in the parent Dashwoods, and add in a tepid Lady Catherine DeBurgh. Mix half-heartedly. Forty pages from the end, give up entirely and switch to anachronistic Gothic adventure.”

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              • In the Fitzwilliam Darcy series, that whole middle book just KILLED me–ugh! All that gambling and the endless description of card games. BUT, I was still interested enough in the Wickham conflict to buy the third book. And now, I honestly don’t recall how the author handled it!

                Oh, man–you’re brutal. I didn’t see Mr. Vincent as anything resembling Mr. Darcy until the end, when (SPOILER!) he turned out to be rich. He was sullen where Darcy was merely detached (or he tried very hard to be).

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              • I thought Mr Vincent was Mr Rochester! Mr whateverhisname was Mr Darcy for me — you know, the one with the Georgina/Lydia hybrid for a little sister? aka, Mr Red Herring.

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  3. Oops, that conversation thread was getting too narrow. I didn’t associate Mr. Dunkirk with Darcy at all. He was a bit bland for me to associate with any of Austen’s leading gentlemen. Maybe Captain Carter?

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    • I think I mostly Darcy’d him because of the little sister association, and possibly because of the way he occasionally gave his opinions arrogantly. I can’t really remember much of Captain Carter, but then again I can’t remember much about Dunkirk, so that might be a good point.

      Maybe Colonel Brandon is a fair fit for Dunkirk? With a little Edward Ferrars.

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  4. “It’s when it ventures into becoming a homage or fan fiction when I seem to have a problem. And since such novels are popular, it’s probably just me.” It’s not just you.

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