The Short Review this month will be looking at Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey. There seems to be a trend lately with fantasy novels being set in Regency England, so I guess it was inevitable that one would come along in the guise of a Jane Austin novel. In typical Austin fashion, the novel opens with the Honorable Charles Ellsworth of Long Parkmead contemplating the marriage prospects of his two daughters, Jane and Melody. This, however, is as far as I’ll extend the comparison to Austin. I don’t think we do justice to either Kowal or Austin by taking the comparison further than general themes, and hinting at more diminishes the literary giant that was Austin while elevating Kowal’s work to something that it is not.
This is not to say that Kowal’s novel is bad, and in fact, I enjoyed it very much. The concept of adding magic or glamour as it is called in the novel, as a “womanly” art alongside music and painting is wonderfully unique, and I found the story well written and an extremely easy read. This last is the reason that I shy from any comparison to Austin. Austin’s prose is complex and intended for a much different audience than Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey. The former is literature while the latter is an enjoyable fantasy novel with a nice original twist regarding the use of magic.
The story is told from Jane’s point of view, the older and more mature of Mr. Ellsworth’s two daughters. Unfortunately, while Jane is highly accomplished in the womanly arts of painting, music and glamour, she is unattractive to the point of being ugly. Melody, her younger sister, is of course beautiful but completely lacking in any of the womanly arts. The rest of the story continues as the two sisters vie for suitors, Jane using her ability in the arts to attract the attention of the eligible bachelors in the neighborhood, while Melody must fall back on her beauty and penchant for faking injuries to attract attention. All of Kowal’s characters are engaging, and even though most fit into a stereotypical role for the period, none are so flat as to become a distraction. The final twists and turns of plot are enough to pull the reader through this very easy read.
So to summarize, I enjoyed Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey, but then again, Austin has always been one of my favorite novelists, so I was comfortable with the thematic comparisons. I only have one issue with recommending Kowal’s book; I’m not sure who her intended audience is. I honestly can’t see young men enjoying this, and I’m afraid that after so many vampires, that young women will find this too slow and boring. Readers of romance might not find the manners of Regency England to their liking, and general fantasy fans might want a little more action and more powerful magic.