Tuesday, June 01, 2010
Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal
Shades of Milk and Honey
Mary Robinette Kowal
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.