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!

14 thoughts on “Review: Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

  1. I’ve had my beady eye on this for ages and couldn’t make my mind up – I figure I will probably really quite like it! Plus, Jane Austen.
    Lynn 😀

  2. Love the sound of this. Have you read The Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson series by Stephanie Burgis? They have quite a similar premise to this (Jane Austen + magic + awesome female characters) but are aimed at children.

  3. I recently read the fifth and last (?) book in the series, and I enjoyed them all, as I enjoyed the evolving characterization and Ms. Kowal’s delightful blend of history and fantasy. She’s certainly an author deserving of closer attention, indeed!

  4. Fantasy of Manners:0). I love a good genre mash-up and this series is a great blending of historical fiction and fantasy. If I remember correctly I liked book two even better than this one – are you planning on reading on in the series?

    I think I like best when siblings have a little bit of both love and conflict because that seems closest to reality in my experience at least. I love fantastical situations and plotting but I generally appreciate relationships to be as genuine as possible which usually = complex.

    Great Review!

  5. When you use words like pastiche and oeuvre I feel intimidated because I call people dude and use awesome as an adjective far too frequently. When you use fancy words in the same sentence about Jane Austen when you’re reviewing a book though and I know we’re on the same wavelength. Everyone can understand the appeal of Austen, especially Austen with magic. Those words alone are enough to make me want to read, but then the rest of your review fully convinces me this is a book I will enjoy.

    I love books that involve siblings and any book that has the siblings equally love each other and want to punch one another in the face and you know you’ve got an accurately portrayal of siblings. you find you love them but simultaneously want to rip their hair out because they are the most annoying person in existence (at least, that’s how I felt about my brother growing up. He is just as annoying now but we can also have normal conversations where we don’t end up hitting one another).

    I am most definitely picking this book up soon. I know I shouldn’t be drawn in by a Jane Austen comparison but I am. I’m easy like that.

  6. The only book similar to this I’ve read is Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho, which I absolutely adored as well, so I will have to check this one out 🙂 I don’t tend to like Regency and Austen type writing on its own (I know, this makes me a horrible bookworm), but throw in a little bit of magic and I am absolutely sold. I will have to check out if my library has this one!

  7. Glad to see you enjoyed this one! It’s sitting on my TBR pile but I’ve been putting it off because I kept hearing mixed reviews about it. I love the concept of it though and the Jane Austen-ness doesn’t bother me. I’ll have to read it soon.

  8. It does sound really charming! I have to add this to my TBR because I adore Austen, and anything that brings some of that magic back to life for me is good. Thanks for bringing this one to my attention!

  9. Duude – a glamourist sounds like the alchemists from The Lies of Locke Lamora, but more abra-cadaba-esque.
    This book sounds lovely! And your unbelievably eloquent review has led me to believe I need to purchase a thesaurus – and possibly a dictionary – because I am feeling incredibly illiterate.
    Your reviews are an inspiration and excuse me while I go read a dozen more! (I saw Scott Lynch around here somewhere..)

  10. I’ve been eyeing this one for a while but the series has FIVE published parts so far! *moan* I’m just so bad at finishing series it’s sad.

    BUT you make a really compelling argument for it. A Jane Austen pastiche sounds really good + the glamour thingy is something new, I don’t think I’ve read about a magic of a similar kind before.

    I didn’t know you’re an only child. 🙂 I recently talked to another blogger who has 2 brothers and she said she always wanted a sister – I have a younger brother and I never wanted a sister just for this reason: it seems to me that rivalry is inevitable. I mean, we fought a lot as well but we never had to compete for the same things in life, not really. I like reading about sibling relationships, so this is definitely another point in its favour! 🙂

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