From the Vault: Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal

March 21, 2023 Book Reviews, From the Vault 3 ★★★★½

From the Vault: Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette KowalShades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
Series: Glamourist Histories #1
Published by Tor on August 3, 2010
Genres: Historical Fantasy, Fantasy Romance
Pages: 304
Format: Kindle or ebook
Purchase: Amazon | Bookshop | Barnes & Noble | Audible | Chirp
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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.

Austenesque fantasy

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.


About Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of the Lady Astronaut Universe, The Spare Man and six historical fantasy novels: The Glamourist Histories series and Ghost Talkers. She’s a member of the award-winning podcast Writing Excuses and has received the Astounding Award for Best New Writer, four Hugo awards, the RT Reviews award for Best Fantasy Novel, the Nebula, and Locus awards. Stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Asimov’s, several Year’s Best anthologies and her collections Word Puppets and Scenting the Dark and Other Stories.

Her novel The Calculating Stars is one of only eighteen novels to win the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards in a single year.

As a professional puppeteer and voice actor (SAG/AFTRA), Mary Robinette has performed for LazyTown (CBS), the Center for Puppetry Arts, Jim Henson Pictures, and founded Other Hand Productions. Her designs have garnered two UNIMA-USA Citations of Excellence, the highest award an American puppeteer can achieve. A professional audiobook narrator, she records fiction for authors such as Seanan McGuire, Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi.

Mary Robinette lives in Nashville with her husband Rob and over a dozen manual typewriters. Visit

3 Responses to “From the Vault: Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal”

  1. Katherine

    I remember when you first reviewed this! I immediately put it on my TBR but somehow I still haven’t read it. It still sounds like a wonderful read.