Shades of Milk and Honey is the debut novel of Mary Robinette Kowal, who had already made a name for herself before its release with her short fiction. By the time this novel came out, she had already won the Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2008 and been nominated for a Hugo Award in 2009. The recognition of Kowal’s work has continued since then. Shades of Milk and Honey was nominated for the 2010 Nebula Award, and Kowal won the Hugo Award for her short story “For Want of a Nail” the following year. She will be writing more novels as there are 3 sequels to Shades of Milk and Honey planned: Glamour in Glass, coming out this April; Without a Summer; and Valour and Vanity.
Shades of Milk and Honey is described on the cover jacket as “precisely the sort of tale we would expect from Jane Austen…if she had lived in a world with magic.” It is very much a story similar to Jane Austen’s books, although much shorter and lighter in characterization. It’s set in Regency England and has the same focus on suitors and marriage, etiquette, and social gatherings as Jane Austen’s novels. Where it differs is having art as a theme and a world in which glamour, a type of magic, exists and is often used for the creation of art.
The story is about Jane Ellsworth, a 28-year-old woman who believes herself to have no marriage prospects due to her plain features. She can’t help but compare herself to her younger sister, Melody, who is very attractive. Yet Melody can’t help but feel she falls short in comparison to Jane, who may not be lovely to look at but is exceptionally talented when it comes to glamour and the arts. Melody may capture the eye, but it is Jane who often end up the center of attention at various social gatherings as she’s the only one who can come close to matching the skills of the artistic and mysterious Mr. Vincent. Furthermore, their neighbor Mr. Dunkirk is very appreciative of the arts, and both Melody and Jane have become rather attached to him.
Mostly, it is the story of Jane and her relationships with her family and neighbors, her moral decisions, her views on art, and her development as an artist – and how she finds true love.
Shades of Milk and Honey is a very short and quick read. While at first I found it enjoyable but somewhat lacking in substance, I found myself still thinking about it and reflecting on it quite a bit after reading it. My opinion of it has become more positive after really thinking about it since at first I had some trouble not comparing it to Jane Austen and finding it coming up short. Taken as its own separate entity, I think it works very well as a light historical fantasy romance. It’s just that the very obvious similarities to Austen’s works (Kowal’s site describes it as a tribute) make it very difficult not think of this novel as “kind of like Jane Austen but not as good.”
The problem with calling Shades of Milk and Honey a tribute to Austen is that it forces a comparison between this book and Austen’s work. (This is why I try to avoid comparing books in my own reviews – even if there are similarities, what you first think of when hearing the name of a book may not call to mind the same exact qualities others think of when first thinking of the same book.) There are many parts of the book that are instantly recognizable as having similarities to Austen’s novels if you’ve read them. Jane is in some ways like Anne Elliot, the heroine from Persuasion who remains unmarried at an “old” age. The two sisters are in many ways like Marianne and Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility with Jane the more sensible sister and Melody more likely to give in to feelings and passions without thinking about the consequences first. For example, here is the scene when Jane learns Melody had only pretended she hurt her ankle to get the attention of a man:
Jane shook her head, bewildered by her sister’s jealousy toward her. Her! Who had not the slightest hope of marrying, were it not for the sum Mr. Ellsworth had put away for her dowry. But more than the bewilderment, she was dismayed by what her sister had confessed. “You could certainly have explained the injury was not so great as it first appeared; that the shock had given it more weight than it had merited. Oh, Melody, what were you thinking?”
“I was not thinking! I was feeling! And is it so terrible a thing? I have hurt no one save myself, and he came today, did he not?” [pp. 104]
Jane and Melody’s parents were also very like Elizabeth Bennet’s parents from Pride and Prejudice with the rather silly mother and the more reasonable father, and there many other nods to Austen throughout the story.
Shades of Milk and Honey suffers from the baggage of the Austen comparison, though. It does not have the same depth of character, the same wit, the memorable heroes and heroines, or the same social commentary that Austen is known for. For some this may be a good thing–especially those who perhaps liked the idea of Austen’s stories but felt her books were too verbose or lengthy. For others, who love Austen’s novels with all their hearts, this may color their perception of the book a little, making it appear thin next to her monumental works.
However, once I got past the fact that Shades of Milk and Honey is mostly a superficial tribute to Jane Austen instead of a clone, I found it to be a delightful, enjoyable story, particularly the latter part where it diverged more from the type of story Austen would tell and seemed less like a mashup of several of her novels. It’s a very readable book that kept me turning the pages, and it had a very exciting ending. Unfortunately, a lot of what I found most enjoyable about it is really hard to talk about without spoiling how the romance turns out. Since I want to talk about this anyway, I’m hiding it behind spoiler tags:
While there is magic in this book, it’s mostly important in the context of the exploration of art. Glamour is largely used for making illusions, whether they are for lighting in a room, making the hair in a painting move in the wind, or making a bunch of people disappear because they’re obscuring the view. It’s not well-explained, but I think art in general is more important to the story since it was Jane’s main interest and what accomplished women do. (I am still curious about why more women knew glamour than men and it if it is as Jane thought that men were perfectly capable of it but just lacked the training.) There are several conversations about art – how it enhances the home and makes it more comfortable, whether or not it’s possible to enjoy art if one stops to examine it, and the relationship between flaws and perfection. A love for the artistic permeates the book, and I rather liked this aspect of it.
Comparing Shades of Milk and Honey to Jane Austen is unavoidable, and I do think that my reading experience suffered as a result because I was expecting Austen’s depth and cleverness. However, I still found Shades of Milk and Honey very compelling, especially the later parts which moved away from Austen’s template. I loved the ending and actually find myself very eager to read Glamour in Glass when it comes out in April. This is both because I truly enjoyed this book and because I am expecting the sequel to stand on its own a bit more – and how could I resist it after seeing Mary Robinette Kowal described it as “a little more swashbuckling than the first book” on her FAQs page?
My Rating: 7/10
Where I got my reading copy: I bought it.