Series: Glamourist Histories #1
Published by Tor on August 3, 2010
Genres: Historical Fantasy, Fantasy Romance
Format: Kindle or ebook
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Also in this series: Shades of Milk and Honey
Also by this author: The Calculating Stars, The Relentless Moon
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.
From the Vault brings back reviews I wrote and posted years ago, often updated following a recent rereading of the book.
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 the novel is not merely a fantasy set in the Regency era. Stephanie Burgis’s delightful Kat, Incorrigible series fits that description, too, but her books owe as much to Georgette Heyer and possibly Joan Aiken’s alternate-history children’s books as to Austen. The debut novel in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories, 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 displayed publicly by talented male artists. In exactly the same way as the music and painting of the era, glamour is a desirable, even necessary accomplishment for a gentlewoman, but is not accounted as Art (with a capital A) 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… although there are some applications which could lend themselves, in the right (or wrong) hands, to more serious endeavors — a topic 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 a nearby landowner to produce a “glamural” for the ballroom. 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 Melody’s attentions are engaged by another man, whose name she refuses to reveal. Concerned, and hoping 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 charming, insightful novel of manners, as well as a very subtle romance. It’s a little gem, and the start of a series I am delighted to be continuing at last.
First reviewed in 2017, and revised slightly for this post, based on my reread in November 2022.