on August 3, 2010
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Shades of Milk and Honey is an intimate portrait of Jane Ellsworth, a woman ahead of her time in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality. But despite the prevalence of magic in everyday life, other aspects of Dorchester’s society are not that different: Jane and her sister Melody’s lives still revolve around vying for the attentions of eligible men.
Jane resists this fate, and rightly so: while her skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face, and therefore wins the lion’s share of the attention. At the ripe old age of twenty-eight, Jane has resigned herself to being invisible forever. But when her family’s honor is threatened, she finds that she must push her skills to the limit in order to set things right--and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.
This debut novel from an award-winning talent scratches a literary itch you never knew you had. Like wandering onto a secret picnic attended by Pride and Prejudice and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Shades of Milk and Honey is precisely the sort of tale we would expect from Jane Austen…if only she had been a fantasy writer.
Shades of Milk and Honey is fantasy as Jane Austen would have written it. That’s hardly an original comparison; pretty much everyone who has read the book has said the same thing. But it’s not just a fantasy set in the Regency era. Stephanie Burgis’s delightful Kat, Incorrigible series fits that description, but her books owe as much to Georgette Heyer and possibly Joan Aiken’s alternate-history children’s books as to Austen. Mary Robinette Kowal’s novel, on the other hand, feels quintessentially Austenesque in every way: in plot, pacing, language, attention to manners, the interactions between its characters, and particularly in its magic system, which is perfectly constructed to suit the upper-class sensibilities of the period.
Glamour is the bending and weaving of light and sometimes sound; it is an art form practiced within the home by gentlewomen and publicly by talented (male) artists. In exactly the same way as the music or painting of the day, glamour is a desirable, even necessary “accomplishment” for a gentlewoman, but is not accounted as Art unless produced by a male artist. And like the music and painting of the period, glamour’s primary function is the entertainment of the upper classes… though there are some applications which might lend themselves, in the right (or wrong) hands, to more serious endeavors — something I suspect may be explored in later books.
Jane Ellsworth, our heroine, is a plain woman attempting to resign herself to spinsterhood. She is, however, a very talented glamourist. This brings her into contact with, and initially into almost a competition with, Mr. Vincent, a gruff and secretive glamourist of significant talent who has been commissioned by nearby landowner. Though an artist by trade, Vincent clearly enjoys some social standing, but his sometimes curt manner toward Jane baffles her.
Jane is drawn to another man, Mr Dunkirk, but her beautiful, flirtatious, and jealous sister Melody seems determined to attach Mr Dunkirk herself… until her attentions are engaged by another man, whose name Melody refuses to reveal. To protect her sister and her family’s honor, Jane stretches her glamour skills to the utmost, and nearly precipitates a disaster.
Like Austen’s books, Shades of Milk and Honey isn’t a fast-paced adventure, but a delightful, insightful novel of manners and a very subtle romance. It’s a little gem, and the start of a series I am quite eager to continue.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
- The Backlist Reader (TBR) Challenge 2016