Shades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor Books, 2010)

Grade: Ω — Not really the opposite of an Alpha.  An excellent book that breaks rules with flair and craft and/or may appeal more to people who do not normally read the genre than those who are aficionados of it. 

In brief:

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal is an excellent Regency Romance Novel that adds a touch of magic to its setting.  The result is a wonderful read that stretches the both the romance and fantasy genres and adds a new layer of appeal to both.  I highly recommend this book, but give warning to keep your genre expectations well in hand while reading it.  Do that, and you will find this a charming tale that delights. 

Setting:

Regency England, where a limited form of magic that is based on creation of illusion (glamour) through the manipulation of ether.

In Depth:

A lot of people have compared Shades of Milk and Honey to Jane Austen, and that is neither correct nor fair. While Mary Robinette Kowal’s style of writing has more in common with Regency period authors than it does with Tolkien or Salvatore, her style is far more compact and concise, and her voice is truly her own.  She primarily uses short sentences (as opposed to the complex compound structures more typical of the early 19th Century).  To that end, this novel makes for a short, light read rather than the tome like depth of an Austen novel.[1] That is not to say, however, that her writing is totally anachronistic of the period.  She uses the proper turns of phrase and spelling throughout.  Rather, it should be said that Mary Robinette Kowal’s prose is her own, reminiscent of Austen and others of the period, without attempting to mimic it the way that many second rate bodice rippers do. 

The Author

Neither can this novel be called a Fantasy novel, at least not in the vein of J.R.R. Tolkien,[2] R.A. Salvatore, George R.R. Martin or any other fantasy author who goes by their initials.  It’s scope is small and personal rather than the grand sweeping adventures more generally associated with the Fantasy genre.  Indeed, while reading it, I had to keep reminding myself that there was not going to be any world impacting events, nor sudden unexpected twist that reveals some devious or psychopathic plot, plan or the like.[3]  As such, it really has little in common with most Fantasy novels, nor Urban Fantasy novels, save only that magic exists in the world she has created.

Yet, the magic is central to the plot. One could not tell this tale without it (well, you could but it would be a very pedestrian story; with the magic in place it works quite splendidly), but neither is the magic a world changing power.  Indeed, it is quite ephemeral in nature, and as such the story holds suspension of disbelief very nicely.  One problem with many books that include magic into a historic period, such as one of my favorites, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, is that the logic of the history of the world doesn’t hold together.  That is to say, in most Alternate History Fantasy worlds, the existence of magic does not truly make historic sense.  For example, if there really was magic in Regency England, the history leading up to that point in the story would not logically hold together. 

In this book, however, the magic, or glamour as it is called, is merely an art form and not really useful for much else.  Thus, its impact is not as likely to change history as in many other books.[4] Nevertheless, while magic is not central to the events in the world, it is central to the plot and the manner in which the author keeps this balanced is beautiful.

As for the plot itself, it is straight forward Regency Romance set in the mold of Jane Austen.[5] It follows the story of Jane Ellsworth of Long Parkmead, Dorchester.  She is the daughter of Charles Ellsworth, the second son of aristocracy, and as such she is of the British Upper Class, but not nobility.  Neither, therefore, is her economic future a certainty unless, of course, she marries well. 

This is the crux of the matter, for while Jane is a talented woman, well educated, schooled in the fine arts and particularly talented in “Glamour,” she has no fortune of her own and is more or less plain in appearance.  In contrast her younger sister has no such talent with the arts, but is indeed quite beautiful.  As such, while there is great love between them, there is also a rivalry made particularly acute by the fact that at the ripe old age of twenty-eight, it would appear that Jane will soon become a spinster. 

The cover of the soon to be released sequel... don't read the book description of this book before finishing Shades of Milk and Honey... it contains a spoiler.

Into this setting, several suitors appear and… well, so the story begins.  To say more would be to spoil it, for as with many such books, the joy is in the reading, not just the telling. So, if you want a bodice ripper, go elsewhere.  If you want High Fantasy, or even a Regency period action tale, go elsewhere.  And if you want Jane Austen… well go to Jane Austen.

If, however, you want a charming novel that pulls you in and does a marvelous job of capturing a period of the past re-imagined with magic, begin here.  It was a truly lovely tale. 

_____________________________

[1] I should note, I quite like Austen and particularly like her style of writing.  My comments here are not meant to be a slight on that great woman’s work, but rather a comment on Kowal’s ability and style.

[2] Actually, I would argue that Tolkien can’t really be called Fantasy either, at least not in the way that modern fantasy is defined.  The style and language are far too different and… oh that’s a whole other post….

[3] Actually, I kept expecting some more nefarious scheme to arise, more like a mystery or espionage novel, but that came wholly from the prejudices I’ve gained from the genre fiction I read… fortunately, I held these in check.

[4] Oh, alright it WOULD.  You really couldn’t have an art form as drastically interesting as glamour exist without it having had significant impacts on the ideologies of the people in question. There is just no way you could create illusions of that nature, nor add any art form to a society without it having drastic impacts on the philosophies, religions and other forms of socio-ideological interactions.  Still, at least we’re not talking about lightning bolts shooting from one’s hands of Medieval Europe’s aristocracy all being vampires or the like…

[5]  That is to say it is not a tale of two lovers, but of a woman and her trials and tribulations, of which love is the central issue. 

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About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
This entry was posted in 19th Century Fantasy/Fae Tale, Alternate History, Fantasy, Fantasy Regency Romance, Ripping Yarn, Romance, Series, Stand Alone Novel, Thoughtful, Uncategorized, World and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Shades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor Books, 2010)

  1. Dina says:

    Very nice review. It’s funny that I gave it a simiar rating even though the things you mentioned positively were exactly the ones that put me off a bit. Me, being a Jane Austen lover and having read her books many times, I felt that Kowal tried too hard to imitate her style. Her own voice was only able to shine through in the second half when things get very un-Austen-ish. And I thought that this particular magic should have had more impact on the society and every-day life.
    I do like the author a lot, though (check out the Writing Excuses podcast with her, Brandon Sanderson, and Dan Wells) and will definitely read Glamour in Glass.

    • Thomas Evans says:

      I love writing excuses! And yes, I can see why what I loved you disliked, and visa versa. I guess what is most interesting is that she managed to create a work that appealed to different people for different, in fact almost opposite reasons.

      I also look forward to reading Glamour in Glass… which looks more my standard kind of fair. I wonder if our reviews will flip?

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