Published by Tor Books on July 26, 2010
Genres: Fantasy & Magic
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.
This debut novel from an award-winning talent scratches a literary itch you never knew you had. Like wandering onto a secret picnic attended by Pride and Prejudice and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Shades of Milk and Honey is precisely the sort of tale we would expect from Jane Austen…if only she had been a fantasy writer.
It’s not a secret that I’m a huge fan of both Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen (one of these days I should show you my collection of P&P books) and the fantasy of manners subgenre. So when I first heard of Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories described as “a delightful melding of magic and Austen” by my friend, Meghan, I knew it was a book series that I’d love! Although, I didn’t realize how much I’d love it when I started the first book.
The first book in the Glamourist Histories is Shades of Milk and Honey and it was such a fun book! It’s the “read in one sitting” good! It reads along the same vein as some of my favorite books like Patricia Wrede’s Mairelon the Magician series and her Kate and Cecilia books. This may be a bit shallow of me, but I love the new cover for this book! The first one was okay, but this one is just so beautiful! I also love how it ties into the story.
As much as I love Jane Austen’s books, I always thought there was something missing and that something was magic. What can I say? Magic makes everything better.
I had a grand time with this book! Shades of Milk and Honey is the perfect blend of manners with an intriguingly simple magic system that is at once haunting in its beauty, convincing in its mechanics, and intriguing in its possibilities. It is intriguing while being subtle and it fits perfectly in a Regency England setting. It is referred to as glamour, which is an illusory form of magic. Its users can manipulate folds of light and sound to disguise or enhance depending on what is needed. It is also doubles as an art form and can be used to create giant and elaborate works of art called glamurals.
It was refreshing to read a book in which the technicalities of the magical system were not only well defined and clear, but important. There were no info-dumps! Everything revealed had a purpose and was cleanly integrated into the story. And I adore how Kowal made glamour to be a “womanly art”, but then goes and introduces a proficient male glamourist.
The characters were as intriguing as the magic and the writing was well paced, a bit witty, and engaging. The storyline is reminiscent of Regency romances, and Kowal managed to capture the style of Jane Austen’s novels and yet have it still be original. It also has all of the elements we love in Regency novels: the silly mother, the sisters who are complete opposites, rich neighbors, dinner parties, issues of propriety, unexpected friends and scoundrels…
The best thing about this book is the cast of characters, most notably our heroine, Jane Ellsworth. Jane is everything a lady should be in this version of the Regency era. She’s well-mannered, intelligent, kind to a fault, and highly skilled in the art of glamour. The only problem is that her features are plain. So at the age of twenty-eight, Jane has resigned herself to a life of spinsterhood. She is strong but she’s not above moments of jealousy. And when I say kind to a fault, I do mean to a fault. Her natural tendency is to show the utmost kindness and tact in every situation and that gets her into some difficult predicaments.
Her sister, Melody, is annoying and so is Jane’s mother. But I loved Jane’s father! He was always kind to Jane where her sister and mother were inclined to forget her. It was adorable to see the pains he went through to make sure she felt cared for. I know that Jane keeping her feelings to herself is what was viewed as proper at the time, I wished she would have stood up to her sister and mother more often.
While Jane excels at the womanly arts like working glamour, Melody is the beauty of her family with her lovely smile and easy manners. She is the one whom every one simple assumes will make an advantageous match. And so it is with a nearly resigned heart that Jane watches her sister play at flirting with the one man she feels she might love, Mr. Dunkirk. While Melody flirts, Jane becomes a companion to Mr. Dunkirk’s sister.
Things really get interesting when a true master of glamour arrives. Mr. Vincent is the very picture of a grumpy, reclusive artist. He has a sort of dark, handsome allure that immediately attracts attention, but it’s not always of the admiring sort. Jane seems inclined to like him, but his personality is very off putting. She appreciates his great talent while disliking his manners. However, with both of them being skilled at glamour, they can barely keep from being thrown into each other’s paths every time they enter into society.
The main drama of this story is that of secret lovers: who has an understanding with whom, who wants an understanding with whom, and who should really just stay away from whom. The romance is at the forefront and it’s done with a deft hand, making it both light and filled with some dramatic twists and turns. And I will admit, I was totally surprised with who ended up with whom at the end.
Shades of Milk and Honey was an amusing and satisfying crossover between Regency romance and magical fantasy. I enjoyed the story so much and I absolutely adored Jane. I was thoroughly enthralled with this story that I have no words for the amount of love I have for it! My only complaint was that it could have been longer! Thank heavens the series has four more books in it!
If you like Jane Austen’s world but also enjoy a hint of magic you will simply adore this book! Also, if you like audiobooks, the audio for this book is fan-freaking-tastic! It’s actually narrated by the author herself and she happens to be an award-winning puppeteer. Think for a minute about how awesome that would make the audiobook.
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