Synopsis: “Shades of Milk and Honey is an intimate portrait of Jane Ellsworth, a woman ahead of her time in a version of Regency England 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.”
I had had Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey on my TBR for the longest time so I was really glad when I was finally able to get my hands on it. Imagine my dismay then when I found myself dragging my feet (so to say) through the story, wanting to scream at the main protagonists and trying to forage through the happenings to get to the meat of an actual story. I know! I know! The book has not been publicized as anything but a “novel of manners” and a take on Jane Austen and I have absolutely no problem with that. I enjoy romance and some of my favourite books are what I call “quiet books,” books that are not so much about big action and jaw-dropping plot developments as about the story being revealed through the everyday experience of its characters.
But hey if you’re going to market your book as a “Jane Austen-anything” then you better have that first part down pat. The problem is Shades of Milk and Honey has all the fluff of Pride and Prejudice but none of its substance.
The comparison between Shades of Milk and Honey and Jane Austen’s books holds on surface—regency era, preoccupation with getting the girls married off, protected young damsels with a whiff of scandal in their pasts, an older mature woo-er versus a young, dashing beau with the possibility of some evilness lurking in his character—but what makes Pride and Prejudice work is that it’s not just a story about two protagonists who find love; it’s a story about how those protagonists find love and why they find it the way they do. The process of reaching their happily-ever-after is rich, complex and nuanced enough to furnish a good story.
With Shades of Milk and Honey the underlying story is just not engaging enough. Moreover, the havey-cavey way in which the main leads’ coming together is achieved left me vastly dissatisfied. The change of heart that Jane undergoes right at the end of the novel was hard to believe. It made me question the constancy of her character and her judgment. All this compounded with certain awkward phrasings, especially at the beginning of the book, and phrasings that jarred me right out of the story made Shades of Milk and Honey a ho-hum experience at best.
Perhaps I am being too harsh – I profess to not really warming up to either Jane or her twaddle of a sister, Melody. Or to Vincent either now that I think of it. (Vincent is the ‘hero’)
The thing that I did enjoy the most and that I wish had received more airtime was Miss Kowal’s imagining and descriptions of glamour—magic that the upper class uses to beautify their homes and awe their guests with. Yes, Shades of Milk and Honey is supposed to be “the sort of tale we would expect from Jane Austen… if she had lived in a world with magic.” What I would like to see in her future books is how this magic shapes up the lives of women who practice it and the society that they live in. I want to read about the history of glamour, about men working in a profession that comes across as womanly and all the bells and whistles that Miss Kowal has imagined as a template for the framework of her magic.
And that perhaps may well be the reason why I might try out the second book in the series. To see if she indeed does expand on glamour in the subsequent books. That and the fact that from what I read about her, Miss Kowal seems likeable enough and so I am willing to try her once more before I give up on her books.