Shades of Milk and Honey – Mary Robinette Kowal (Review)

Shades of Milk and Honey Mary Robinette Kowal

I first heard of Shades of Milk and Honey in this post by Andrew Knighton. He described it as “the social whimsy of Jane Austen with magical fantasy”.

I wasn’t initially sold on the concept – two great things mixed together often goes poorly. I enjoy science fiction, and I enjoy fantasy, but any attempt to combine the two – to add crashed spaceships to my heroic quest, or a pre-industrial planet to my space opera – tends to leave me cold. So, while I enjoy regency romances, and I enjoy fantasy, I was a little wary.

I bought it, but then put it to one side, and only started reading it because I didn’t want to start working on a Sunday morning. I then found it very difficult to stop reading, and completed very little work. I regret nothing. 

Jane Ellsworth is the elder and less attractive of two sisters in an oh-so-slightly alternate version of regency England. Reluctantly resigned to spinsterhood, Jane leaves flirting to the younger Melody, and instead occupies herself with the accomplishments that all young ladies, especially the unattractive ones, should possess: music, painting, and glamour.

The story revolves around Jane and the quiet country society she lives in. Dashing young captains visit relatives, friendships are sought and made, and balls are attended. Characters engage in polite, under-stated conversation that carries heavy meaning, and those who contravene society’s strictures are snubbed. The proprieties must be observed.

The first few pages, I will admit, did not grab me. My initial impression was that Shades of Milk and Honey was trying too hard to be Austen-esque, to demonstrate its roots and inspiration. Luckily, this impression quickly disappears as Mary Robinette Kowal hits her stride; within the space of a chapter or two, the book no longer feels even slightly forced. The prose flows, the details feels natural and necessary, the characters become more than the archetypes.

So far, that simply sounds like a regency novel – no hint of fantasy elements. That, I think, is one of the great strengths of Shades of Milk and Honey: the subtlety. Magical elements exist, but they aren’t announced with fanfare. No debutante leaves a dance to bind the winds to her will, no dalliance is disrupted by the arrival of a dragon.

Instead, the magic is understated and seamless, blending in perfectly to the setting. In Mary Robinette Kowal’s book, magic (or glamour – the manipulation of aether to create illusions) is just a part of the world – it isn’t some awkwardly bolted-on element of the novel, but a fully integrated and appropriate aspect of the book’s society. Ladies have tutors to teach them the finer points of glamour, and it is considered one of the essential skills for accomplished young women.

It just fits, really well – it makes sense that glamour would be treated as any other skill, and it very quickly makes you accept it as totally normal – of course the regency had people weaving strands of magic into music, what else would they do? Magic isn’t a massive issue, it doesn’t warp the plot – the way in which glamour ties into the narrative is a totally logical extension of the magic system the author sets up.

Stylistically, the book is in that arch and amusing Austen/Heyer style – intricate prose, clever conversations. It’s well done and enjoyable, with plenty of snappy lines and subtly implications; Melody, the more graceless of the sisters, tends to skip the subtlety.

The structure of the book is my only quibble – I’ve mentioned the slightly stilted beginning, and the end of the book similarly drops a little from the high standard set by the rest. There’s a slightly tacked-on epilogue that doesn’t really add a vast amount, and the climax of the novel – of necessity – loses the polite and controlled atmosphere that regency novels inhabit; for a brief section, the book becomes a much more modern and typical fantasy book.

I can see why that occurs – Shades of Milk and Honey goes for a more active resolution than Austen’s inheritors normally provide. I’m by no means saying that that dramatic scene is poorly written, but it is a change from the rest of the novel. Regency romances tend towards a very restrained resolution – Persuasion, for example, has its most pivotal scene revolving around a forgotten glove. Shades of Milk and Honey has what amounts almost to a chase scene, and is more action-packed than any Austen novel. It doesn’t match the atmosphere of the rest of the book, but it is perfectly competently done. Somewhat jarring, but not an insurmountable problem.

The rough edges of the book, though, stand out as noticeable only because the rest of it is so very polished and enjoyable; Mary Robinette Kowal’s book is good enough that even little lapses from the polish stand out.

Fantasy, much as I enjoy it, tends to take the same eras and situations as inspiration again and again. The Crusades, the Wars of the Roses, the Roman Empire. All of those are great, and I own countless books that are based on those or similar events and historical periods. Fantasy, as a whole, takes its inspiration from war. Shades of Milk and Honey doesn’t do that; it isn’t war but normal society which is the basis for this story. I am all for that.

Fantasy should be an incredibly diverse genre – in a genre where anything is possible, it is occasionally a little saddening that so many books rest upon the same concepts or ideas. This book is not one of them – it’s taking a different inspiration and doing something atypical with it. That can’t be anything but a good thing.

In case it is somehow unclear, my overall verdict is extremely positive. Shades of Milk and Honey was engaging and engrossing, it had developed characters, a more interesting than usual plot, and seamlessly blended two rather different genres together. I’ve already recommended it to all sorts of people – it’s a solid romance and a solid work of fantasy, which gives it a lot of appeal. I enjoyed it, and I found it difficult to put down.

Buy it here.

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