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Book Review: Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and HoneyGenre: Romance, Historical Fantasy
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: August 3, 2010
ISBN-10: 076532556X
ISBN-13: 978-0765325563
Author Website: Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette Kowal’s, first novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, as a homage to Jane Austen, but with a fantasy twist. Kowal, the 2008 recipient of the Campbell Award for Best New Writer and a Hugo nominee, tells the story through the eyes of poor plain Jane. The daughter of a country gentleman, she is long of nose – not ugly, but not really attractive either. Having a beauteous younger sister to whom she is always compared does not help matters much. The future spinster has little to recommend her to eligible men save her talent at glamour and high intelligence. But in Georgian England, men prefer only want a woman to look pretty on their arm at social events and no talent or intelligence is likely to win them over. Jane’s pitiable state is only exacerbated by her unrequited love for her sister’s beau. But when her sister Melody transfers her affections to a rake and scoundrel, Jane’s tidy little country family may be torn apart by jealousy.

Kowal really gets into the mindset of the early nineteenth century. Her characters are concerned, even obsessed, with social status. Spinsterhood is a fate worse than death for any woman of this era, and the catching of a good husband is essential. Jane has no prospects, even though her father had ensured that he provided his two daughters a significant dowry. But even that enticement is not enough to attract a mate for Jane, and she is stoically resigned to her fate. Such concerns might seem petty to modern readers, but to the English aristocracy the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, such concerns consumed every waking moment. Kowal excellently captures the immediacy, the fear that individuals of that age felt. Even if intellectually and removed from the story it is easy for the reader to dismiss their motivations, they are rich and full of depth when surrounded by Kowal’s words.

In constructing the narrative, Kowal borrowed heavily from Austen, and long-time readers of Austen (or even those who have only viewed BBC versions) will recognize many of the situations presented. The lovers sourrounding Melody will bring to mind Sense and Sensibility, Jane’s high-strung mother, her own attitude and the small-town society harken to Pride and Prejudice and Jane’s developing romance is drawn from Persuasion. The reader might think that this makes Kowal nothing more than a copyist, but the truth is that she adds her own flavor to the story, such that while there are obvious similarities to Austen, Shades of Milk and Honey does tread its own ground.

The story is also helped by Kowal’s attention to detail. Kowal even writes words in the manner which Austen uses. For instance “show” is spelled “shew” and though an American writer, Kowal uses the British spelling of words like “favorite”, which becomes “favourite” or “glamor” which is spelled “glamour” by most of the English speaking world. She captures the formality of Austen’s writing, but in way that appeals to the sensibilities of the modern reader.

Kowal’s distinct imprint, and the place where the story diverges from Austen, is in the magic system. Called glamour, the magic is of an illusionary kind, used mainly for artistic renderings and the addition of motion or vivacity to paintings or visuals for music. Glamour is an art form, rather than something used for power, although great skill can lead to higher status in society. Different people have different levels of skill, but for young ladies it is considered as essential for a well-rounded woman as playing the piano or sewing. Not just a tack-on to make this story a fantasy rather than historical novel, the magic of glamour is an essential plot device. Kowal uses glamour, and Jane’s skill in it, to provide both conflict and resolution for the story. It also provides Kowal an opportunity to talk about the nature of art (well-placed in dialogue not exposition) in a way that adds profundity to the novel.

Shades of Milk and Honey could easily fit into Austen’s canon, except of course for the inclusion of magic. Kowal has captured both the style and content of an Austen novel, adding her own speculative fiction twist, and readers who enjoyed such novels as Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell will find this novel appealing as well. Readers of period romances have a crossover novel into the speculative fiction genre, and casual (rather than critical) Austen readers have a book that hits all the high points of Austen’s dialogue and plotting while still having its own identity. Highly recommended reading for everyone and one I suspect will garner award nominations from several genres.