Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey
Mary Robinette Kowal

I’ve been eying this book since last year, particularly after this review at The Book Pushers when I basically realized that this was a regency romance with magic in it. When it was nominated for the Nebula Awards, I joined the Nebula Readathon at The Book Smugglers as an excuse to read this.
The Premise: (I’m going to go with the book blurb on this one) 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.”
Read an excerpt of Shades of Milk and Honey here
My Thoughts: This book really feels like a big ol’ homage to regency romances of Jane Austen’s era. From the get-go I was struck by how regency-eque Shades of Milk and Honey was and how often it uses the same conventions as Jane Austen’s stories. We begin by being introduced to the Ellsworths, a respected family with two daughters, a hysterical mother, and a doting father who would like nothing more than to see his daughters happily settled. Jane is the sensible and somewhat plain older sister, and at twenty-eight she’s resigned herself to being on the shelf. Melody is the pretty one, and at eighteen she has a much higher chance of getting married, but as the younger sister, she’s also more impulsive and reckless than Jane. The Ellsworths spend most of their time visiting their friends nearby and going to parties, and proper manners are always assumed. Sounds familiar no? Yes, it’s like a mix of every Jane Austen novel out there. Jane Austen era spellings like ‘shew’, ‘chuse’, ‘teaze’ and ‘nuncheon’ to add to that feel.
What makes Shades of Milk and Honey not just a remix of Austen, is the idea of glamour, a type of small magic that is used for pretty illusions. With glamour, a lady may create a subtle scent in the air, embellish a painting, record and play music, and even enhance her own appearance. There is no end to its uses, although it is considered mainly an artistic skill, not a dangerous one. It is a skill of high merit in well-bred ladies of society, much like the ability to play music or paint.
Jane is particularly skilled at glamour. I was hoping that Jane’s skill in glamour would be more essential to the story than it was, but it seems to be merely there as an interesting skill that gains Jane admiration from those around her. In fact, it is the quality that she is most admired for, and her sister harbors some jealousy because of it, despite her own pretty face and easy grace, which Jane lacks. There’s a bit of sisterly competition when it comes to men because of the their differences. Both girls share an admiration for a neighbor, Mr. Dunkirk, and he is a point of contention, despite never giving either sister a reason to hope. At times, the little jabs at each other got a little nasty, at others they are remorseful for their previous behavior. It was a bit of a see-saw, which I suppose shows the complications of sisterhood, but I wish their relationship was delved into a little further, beyond their little squabbles.
On the other hand, none of the relationships in this book were delved into. The story is very readable and I was easily drawn into Jane’s world, but beyond the social obligations and underlying drama of who may be courting who, I felt a lack of connection between Jane and the other characters. Jane feels more like an observer than a participant in this story. She watches as her sister flirts with gentlemen such as Mr. Dunkirk, and the newly returned Captain Livingston. She sees her mother go into yet another fit of hysteria and commiserate with similarly afflicted Mrs. Marchand. She wonders what secrets her friends Beth and Mr. Dunkirk are hiding. She wonders at the surly Mr. Vincent who creates beautiful works of glamour but doesn’t seem to like her very much. Internally she has a lot of thoughts about her glamour and what people around her are doing, but she doesn’t voice them. She doesn’t act until she is forced to by others, and about 75% into the book, I realized that I wasn’t really sure where the story was going. I felt like Shades of Milk and Honey was circling the airport. I wondered aloud “When are you bringing this baby in?”.
It’s not until she is drawn in by an unexpected suitor and by the threat of family ruin that the story really gets anywhere, and this happens far into the story. I did like where it went, but some of the excitement and interaction at the end of the book would have been nice to see in the rest of the story. I also felt like the romance Jane had was trying to replicate a Darcy and Elizabeth romance, with what looks like initial dislike becomes something more, but I must have missed the subtle growth of their relationship, because when the declarations of love happened, I really wasn’t sure why. Jane spends so little time with her eventual paramour, that the romance, while very sweet, didn’t feel backed up by emotional growth.
Overall: Shades of Milk and Honey reminds me of the stories of Jane Austen in that it has characters that spend their time visiting one another and going to parties, and proper manners are expected. It also has a lot of plot points that hark back to the Jane Austen books: sisterly bonds, strawberry picking, men after dowries, and secret engagements. I think that my love for this stuff kept me reading at a happy clip. For this alone, I’d call the book “good”, but beyond the Jane Austen trappings, I wanted more out of the characters and plot (and more out of the concept of glamour), so it didn’t move past being merely entertaining for me.
P.S. Does anyone know the significance of the title of this book? Is it a reference to the biblical phrase ” “a land flowing with milk and honey“? OK, that would make sense…
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
Other reviews:
Jawas Read, Too! – 8 (out of 10)
The Book Smugglers – 6 (good)
SFF Chat – “didn’t turn out to be exactly what I had been hoping for, it was a pleasurable way to pass a couple of hours”
The Book Pushers – 5 stars (out of 5)
Fantasy Book Critic – A- (“a very light novel that epitomizes “beach reading” for me”)
Christina_reads – Didn’t live up to expectations
Stella Matutina – 3.5 stars (really liked it)
I love this book trailer


3 thoughts on “Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

  1. This is another book I want to read. I like historical fiction with a dash of magic. I just haven’t got to it yet because I can’t justify buying it in hardcover – but I’ll probably pick this up when it comes out in paperback.

    • I hear you. I found it on bookcloseouts so I snapped it up, but my copy has a ripped last page and a small black mark on it. I think it’s worth waiting for it to come out in paperback. I hope they keep the same cover – love the design.

  2. Pingback: Review of Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal | Fantasy Cafe | Reviews of Fantasy and Science Fiction Books

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