Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey
Mary Robinette Kowal

Tor: 2010

The elevator pitch for Shades of Milk and Honey is “Jane Austen with magic”, and had this not been the debut novel from Mary Robinette Kowal, the elevator pitch would have induced me to run the other way. Screaming. Not a fan of Jane Austen, though Sense and Sensibility wasn’t bad. But, since this is the debut novel from Campbell Award winning writer Mary Robinette Kowal and because I am such a fan of her short fiction and have been for a number of years, I eagerly (if nervously) opened the book.

The elevator pitch is entirely truthful. Shades of Milk and Honey is a novel of society and manners and appears to be set in late eighteenth century England. The heroine of the novel is Jane Ellsworth, a “plain” woman who has resigned herself to a life of spinsterhood (Jane is twenty eight) and hopes for little more than to be able to care for her younger and much more beautiful sister’s children when Melody finds a suitable match. What makes Jane remarkable, however, is her sharp intelligence and her skill at “glamour”. Glamour is the only supernatural element to Shades of Milk and Honey and it is a magic used in society as an art to entertain at parties and is something that is taught to the children of privilege.

The conflict in Shades of Milk and Honey is that of emotion, family, honor, and relationships, much as can be found in the novels of Jane Austen and other writers of that ilk. Mary Robinette Kowal is able to overcome my natural aversion to the form by creating a compelling heroine on whom to hang the narrative. Jane Ellsworth is a character readers will feel they know already. She is a woman of integrity and competence and while she understands propriety and is a woman of her day, she is no shrinking violet. When a dishonorable man attempts to take advantage of Melody’s naivety and only Jane knows something is amiss, it is up to Jane to protect her sister’s honor.

No matter whether one comes into Shades of Milk and Honey as an unabashed fan of Jane Austen or, like me, avoids the stuff like the plague, Mary Robinette Kowal has delivered a debut novel to satisfy any and everyone. Shades of Milk and Honey is silky smooth and beautifully written. Kowal uses, on occasional, the style, spelling, and formality of Austen-era fiction, but does so in a modern manner to ease the reader through the novel. It works and works to the point that not only can I recommend Shades of Milk and Honey to readers who would never otherwise pick up this book, but I can also state that after finishing Shades of Milk and Honey readers will be ready for Glamour in Glass now and won’t want to wait for next year.

Reading copy provided courtesy of Tor.


Liviania said...

Excellent review! I, too, am a fan of Mary Robinette Kowal's short fiction and have been looking forward to her novel.

Chad Hull said...

Given your feelings toward Austen, Kowal's short fiction must have been exceptional to get you to commit to read this.

I think I'll start with the short stories.

Anonymous said...

I don't know anything about Kowal, but I do know Austen, and I found this book completely underwhelming. I was really looking forward to it, but instead got a bunch of badly-recycled Austen characters going through the motions of Regency England with very little depth or insight. The entire point of Austen is her ability to do social commentary in the most elegant of ways; Kowal doesn't seem to get that, and as a result the story is hackneyed and flat.

I read science fiction and fantasy regularly, so was wide open to this book. But Kowal hyperfocuses on Regency manners in the most unrealistic ways, she misuses vocabulary, she never gets the lyrical rhythm down at all. It was an unpleasant experience, reading this book. I frequently put it down to take a break, because it was bothering me so much. I wouldn't recommend it, either to an Austen fan or a fantasy fan.

Joe said...

Anon: Sorry you didn't like it. I found it absolutely delightful.