Review: Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette KowalShades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal (Glamourist Histories #1)

Genre: Fantasy of Manners

Publisher: Tor Books on July 26, 2010

Audio: Mary Robinette Kowal for Macmillan Audio

Source: Purchased

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Shades of Milk and Honey is an intimate portrait of Jane Ellsworth, a woman ahead of her time in a version of Regency England where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality.

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When people describe SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY as Jane Austen with magic, they aren’t just trying to sell you on the series by using the name of a beloved author; this book is unequivocally a Jane Austen pastiche. If you’re even remotely familiar with Austen’s oeuvre, then you’ll have a fairly good idea which characters are secretly good or bad and how the plot is ultimately going to unfold. But if you’ve enjoyed Austen’s stories and the stylistic conventions of Regency novels then you’re sure to enjoy this one. Besides, the real fun comes from the characters and the world building!

For a gently bred lady to be considered accomplished in SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY, she must be a glamourist. Jane Ellsworth is one such woman, talented in using magical glamour to enhance beauty and all artistic forms from music to painting to theatre. She has an unparalleled eye and an uncanny ability to sense which glamour would have the greatest effect on an audience or individual person. Unfortunately for Jane, her skill in glamour and her artistic sensibilities are not enough to distinguish her plain face from the radiant beauty of her younger sister Melody’s.

While I don’t have a sister (only child here) and therefore can’t say for certain, I felt like Mary Robinette Kowal did an admirable job portraying the adversarial but ultimately loving relationship that exists between many sisters. Jane and Melody often resent each other for their various charms and skills, and they even harbour feelings for the same gentleman. But ultimately they forgive one another for their foibles, even when they don’t deserve to be forgiven. Melody was a total cow for most of the book, and I honestly felt like Jane should’ve punched her in the mouth. Or at least given her a terrible glamour. But I digress.

While Jane’s relationship with her sister was at times less than positive, her friendship with Beth Dunkirk, a new arrival to the idyllic – albeit extremely gossipy – village of Dorchester. Despite their age difference, these two women found common ground and bonded over books, glamour, and even thwarted love. Although there was some drama between the two (misunderstandings are a staple of the genre, after all!), Jane and Beth are a great example of strong female friendships in SFF. I don’t know about you all, but I always want more of these!

SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY isn’t just complex female characters (although I would totally read that!) and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the mercurial and occasionally shockingly rude Mr. Vincent, glamourist extraordinaire. The most accomplished glamourist Jane has ever met, Mr. Vincent poses an interesting problem: how is she meant to learn from someone who can barely stand to be in the same room with her? But Jane comes to learn that art, inspiration, and glamour can be found in the most unexpected of places… 

In a word: charming.

This is also one of the few cases where the author of a fictional story is the perfect choice for the audio narrator. Audiobook fans may recognize Mary Robinette Kowal’s voice from the Toby Daye series, and just like with those books, her accents, timing, and delivery are all impeccable. I’m really glad I listened to this one on audio!

Highly recommended for fans of Regency novels, fantasy of manners, and slower-paced reads.

What do you think about fictional sisters: should they be friends, adversaries, or both? Have you read SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY? Let me know in the comments!

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