Shades of Milk and Honey
by Mary Robinette Kowal
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.