Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor/June 2011
Kind thanks to Tor for providing a review copy
Shades of Milk and Honey is an intimate portrait of Jane Ellsworth, a woman ahead of her time in a world 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.
Until I opened Shades of Milk and Honey, I had no idea I was in the mood for this kind of novel, but evidently I was, because I could hardly put it down, and in fact, read it in an afternoon. I feel like I have to mention that Sense and Sensiblity is one of my favorite movies, and I’ve seen it, well, let’s just say I’ve seen it multiple times, and I couldn’t help but compare Jane and Melody to the two eldest Dashwood sisters. Jane is 28, and therefore, her marriage prospects are pretty much nonexistent. It doesn’t help that she’s seen as very plain¸whereas her younger sister Melody is everything a suitor looks for in a bride¸beautiful and full of life. However, Jane has a talent that her sister lacks. Jane is a very skilled glamourist, which is seen as a most desirable trait in a wife. In Shades of Milk and Honey, glamour, or magic, is woven into beautiful scenes, or glamurals, for entertainment of guests, but can also be used to disguise more undesirable physical features. It’s really up to the talent of the glamourist as to what can be created, and Jane has talent in spades. She also has her eye on a gentlemen that her sister seems to like, but as we get deeper into the story, we find out that Melody’s affections are not what they seem, and when the girls meet the mysterious and talented Mr. Vincent, they get more excitement than they bargained for.
Shades of Milk and Honey is a light, effervescent concoction that begs to be read on a gorgeous spring afternoon under the shade of a beautiful tree. Don’t worry, it still works if those things aren’t available as well. You’ll root for Jane and I always have a little fun with books written during this time period because I always just want the characters to say what they feel, but propriety really doesn’t allow for it, and it makes for lovely tension. This has gotten a lot of comparison to Jane Austen, of course, but I’ll be completely honest and admit that I haven’t read any Jane since college (it’s been awhile), so it was hard for me to make any direct comparisons (other than Sense and Sensibility), and I think that’s a good thing, since even though the girls reminded me of the Dashwoods, I was just able to enjoy a lovely story. And it is lovely. An unusual take on magic, delightful characterizations, and just plain good writing make this Nebula nominee worth a read, and them some. It was the perfect break between darker fantasy books, and made me smile like a goofball at the end. I’d recommend it for anyone that loves gentle fantasy and a happy ending, and I do love a happy ending every now and then.
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