Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
When I encountered Shades of Milk and Honey at my local library, I just had to pick it up, despite my fantasy burnout. Rearranging and redecorating my room at home has managed to clear most of the burnout out (oddly enough), and I thought I’d read Evening’s Empire or Love in a Fallen City, two other books I’d picked up at the same time, before picking up Shades of Milk and Honey. But when I consulted Twitter, Mary Robinette Kowal herself suggested her book first, so I kind of had to—although, admittedly, I was looking for an excuse.
Shades of Milk and Honey has a plot familiar to fans of Austen—Jane Ellsworth, an unmarried woman of twenty-eight, is an intelligent woman of accomplishment who, now being an “old maid” (although she still hopes), focuses more on making sure that her younger sister, Melody, whose main accomplishment is her stunning beauty, is settled with a proper gentleman. But just when a handful of eligible men come across their paths, the Ellsworth honor is threatened—and it’s up to Jane to defend it with her incredible skill in magic. In this world, magic is a low-key part of everyday life, and the particular skill of glamour is one more arrow in the quiver of a young lady’s accomplishments. This isn’t Austen’s Regency England—but then again, it’s not so different.
Having just spent a semester dissecting Jane Austen and her historical context, I think I can safely say Kowal manages that proper blend of Austenian style and modernity—while the setting and conflicts are familiar and the dialogue is sparkling, the pace and syntax are a lot tighter. I have to admit I spent part of the novel picking out what came from which Austen novel. It makes for that same odd effect that occurs when I read Austen; nothing much is happening, but I just have to turn the page. Well, that isn’t totally true. Kowal diverges from her deeply unsentimental inspiration in the second half, when a wonderfully dreamy Gothic sensibility (the very sort roundly mocked by Austen in Northanger Abbey) seizes the novel; there’s a duel, murderous intent, lovers meeting in the dead of night, and a desperate race across the countryside in the early morning to save a man’s life. Even part of Jane’s journey as a character is learning to use her emotions instead of repressing them. This divergence saves Shades of Milk and Honey from being another Austen tribute and makes it its own unique, but familiar, creature.
Part of the reason I found this novel compelling in that Austenian way is how Kowal manages to create such organic relationships between characters. When it comes to romance, it’s not telegraphed who Jane will end up with or even who is and is not an eligible suitor—Jane’s two options crop up organically during the novel. Part of the fun of reading Shades of Milk and Honey is watching how Jane’s relationships with both men develop naturally, and, of course, hoping that Jane picks… well, telling you what team I was on will spoil you, especially since I was on the winning team—but it’s a well-earned, loving, and equal relationship well worth rooting for. Now that’s how I like my romance! But Jane’s relationship with her sister, Melody, is just as organic, as is her mentorship of Beth, a contemporary of her sister’s. (Her mother, a Mrs. Bennet 2.0, doesn’t fair as well.) Jane envies her sister her beauty, although her rationality and clearheadedness keeps her from ever using glamour to change her physical appearance, and Melody envies Jane her intellectual talents. While it’s tempting to compare Jane and Melody to Elinor and Marianne from Sense and Sensibility, their sisterly relationship feels more equal to me.
In his review for Shades of Milk and Honey, Aidan Moher questioned why magic didn’t seem to be used for more practical things than glamour, which covers all sorts of sensory illusions. Having read his review, I kept my eye out for just this thing, and I came to a different conclusion. Glamour—and, indeed, magic—appears to be largely a feminine art, as Kowal often describes it in terms similar to needlework; for instance, it’s composed of folds pulled from the ether and, in one scene, Jane picks out the stitches her sister has done wrong. In fact, it’s explicitly described as one of the feminine arts in the novel, as well as useless on the battlefield. This isn’t to say that it’s a solely female art; Mr. Ellsworth knows some rudimentary warming spells, the two cold-mongers (working-class glamourists) we encounter are male, and a one Mr. Vincent is the best glamourist we encounter in the novel. But while a young lady is expected to know glamour, it’s not a steady source of income, like most artistic endeavors at the time; Mr. Vincent lives an itinerant lifestyle unsuited to family life, as he himself says. I’m interested to know if this is a magical gender gap—women are just more likely to be proficient at magic than men—or a socialized one—men simply aren’t encouraged or are even discouraged to pick it up, and, perhaps, this is the source of magic not being used for more publicly practical purposes. I hope Kowal is inclined to return to her version of Regency England soon; I’d love to read more.
Bottom line: Shades of Milk and Honey, the novel advertised as “Jane Austen with magic”, has something deeper and more Gothic to it that elevates it above its concept–as well as the winningly organic romance between the heroine and her suitor and Kowal’s refreshing blend of Austenian style and modernity. Know any Austen fans who need to be introduced to speculative fiction? This might be just the right book for the job.
I rented this book from the public library.