Shades of Milk and Honey

Mary Robinette Kowal
Shades of Milk and Honey Cover

Shades of Milk and Honey

Carl V.

Mary Robinette Kowal's Nebula-nominated debut novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, had sat languishing on my shelves for so long I swear I could hear it sigh in relief when I retrieved it to read aloud to my wife, Mary. We are both fond of the work of Jane Austen and the praise this novel has generated gave me hope of a satisfying reading experience.

This novel was a great pleasure to read. The characters are engaging, the setting at once familiar and yet made new by Kowal's introduction of magic, and the story flows beautifully.

Following the conventions of the Regency period, Shades of Milk and Honey tells the story of Jane Ellsworth, her sister Melody, and her father and mother as they navigate the pitfalls and perils of societal life. Jane is our guide, the focal point of our attention, and a more pleasant guide one could not expect. Both Jane and her sister Melody are of marital age, in fact Jane may be argued to be dangerously close to spinster age, and Mrs. Ellsworth would find no greater tonic to her ever-failing nerves than to see her daughters wed to eligible, wealthy men. In Jane's eyes her sister Melody is sure to have no troubles in this arena as she is an avowed beauty who seems to be in no want of suitors. Jane, on the other hand, is not blessed with a countenance that would woo the hearts of men and yet she harbors the hope that her talent with glamour will, at the very least, open a door for her to achieve happiness.

In addition to music, painting and other acts of refinement, ladies of quality are expected to learn the art of glamour–manipulating the ether to enhance the way things look, to adjust temperatures, to create illusions and more. In Kowal's world there is a limit to the use of glamour in that it exacts a physical toll while being used, weakening the practitioner in relation to the length of time working with it as well as the difficulty of the effect created. The use of glamour is not limited to females, there are also men who practice it, some as a trade skill, like the cold-mongers. I had previously noted the skill with which Kowal infuses her Regency world with magic and it bears repeating. From its first introduction this feels like such a natural part of the time period that you accept it without having to make a conscious effort at suspending disbelief.

We are first introduced to the use of glamour through Jane Ellsworth and we are given to understand that she is quite good at her craft. Miss Ellsworth is also quite aware of her physical limitations and yet she harbors a secret hope that her neighbor, Mr. Dunkirk, will see beyond that especially as he is very attentive to her use of glamour. However Jane's beautiful younger sister Melody appears to have designs in that area and Jane, being the model of propriety, will do nothing to reveal her hopes, fears, or doubts to anyone. The social scene grows more complicated soon after the story begins when the Viscountess Lady FitzCameron's nephew, Captain Livingston, comes to visit, Mr. Dunkirk's younger sister arrives to spend time with her brother, and an extremely talented glamourist, Mr. Vincent, is hired by Lady FitzCameron to transform her dining room into a grand spectacle the likes of which have not been seen in this area of England.

With the arrival of one so talented in glamour, Jane Ellsworth is challenged artistically by seeing what could be possible while simultaneously being made aware of her perceived inadequacies. This adds an intriguing facet to Jane's character struggles while producing, for the reader, some of the most visually stimulating passages of literature one could hope for in a novel. It is meant as a mark of praise for Mary Robinette Kowal when I say that I would very much like to see a screen version of Shades of Milk and Honey just to see the glamour scenes rendered with today's special effects wizardry. It would be… magical. (Yes, sorry, but it would be!)

Kowal's characters owe a debt to the work of Miss Austen, as was the intent, and as such you can expect them to delight, annoy, frustrate, excite, and entertain you in the manner that Jane Austen's characters do. You will find moments of humor, moments of reflection, moments of quiet hope and moments of passion. At times Jane Ellsworth can be frustrating in that you become invested in her journey so early that you want her to succeed. You want her to wake up and to notice more clearly what is going on around her, to take her eyes off of herself and truly see. Kowal honors the period by making Jane a model of all that is proper and it is that propriety that makes things so much more complicated in that era, but it is the complication that makes the story such a pleasure to read.

There is a thread of suspense woven through the story that brings the story to a particular climax late in the novel which is an exciting, page-turning affair that is also the source of my one main complaint regarding Shades of Milk and Honey. I can give no details without revealing story elements that are best experienced first-hand other than to say that there are is a convergence of several characters and events unfold very rapidly. As I read it to Mary and we got near the end of the scene she stopped me, asking to repeat what I had just read. I was grateful because I too had gotten confused about events and wanted to re-read that section as well. I re-read it twice and then when we finished the novel we went back and read it again. We were able to piece together what occurred, however it was a passage of the story that was far from as clear as it should have been for the reader. Confusion was a part of the scene, to be sure, but as the dust settled it should have been apparent exactly what had occurred with each character involved and it was not. Or at least it was not for the two of us. Let me state clearly that this is not the end scene of the book. I don't want to give the impression that this is one of those novels that is fantastic and then falls apart at the end. Not so. This is merely one scene near the end that we felt derailed us briefly in a story that otherwise flows beautifully.

Shades of Milk and Honey should not be written off as a mere pastiche of Austen's work. It pays homage while creating its own unique space and I believe that Mary Robinette Kowal's skill as a writer is evident from the start. Though this is her debut novel she was already a multiple-award-winning short story author prior to setting out to create this novel. The novel functions well as a stand-alone work that will leave you feeling satisfied at the end. However, if you find yourself unwilling to let these characters go, there are two further books out urrently with plans for two more to end the series.