Review of Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
Shades of Milk and Honey
by Mary Robinette Kowal
In Grade 12 English we were responsible for an Independent Study Unit, where we read two novels and wrote an essay comparing their common themes. We also had to give a presentation on a theme from the books. I studied Douglas Coupland’s Hey Nostradamus! and Girlfriend in a Coma; my presentation was on theodicy and the Problem of Evil. A classmate gave a presentation about Pride and Prejudice. We had the opportunity to ask questions, and someone (it might have been me; I hadn’t read the book at that time, but I can’t remember) asked about how Austen portrays the Industrial Revolution in her novel. His answer: “She doesn’t. She basically ignores it.” Fair enough. Indeed, while there are minor echoes of industrialization in her works, Austen’s novels are not concerned with the social change happening as a result. Their focus instead on the everyday lives of the rural gentry is what makes them so invaluable (plus, you know, the fact that they are really quite good).
This is the feeling that Mary Robinette Kowal replicates in Shades of Milk and Honey, a novel which she describes as “Jane Austen, with magic.” It is essentially a straight-up Regency-era comic novel in Austen’s style; the only difference is the addition of a minor, illusionary form of magic known as “glamour.” Lacking much in the way of practical use, glamour has become a “womanly” accomplishment much in the vein as drawing, painting, needlework, pianoforte, etc. The protagonist, Jane, is an accomplished amateur glamourist yet still well on her way to being an old maid. Her younger sister, Melody, is more attractive but less accomplished.
Kowal is careful to stress that glamour has not largely altered Regency England. It has no use in war. It’s decorative, fit for enhancing the beauty of a painting or covering the threadbare nature of a room. And this stance remains throughout the book: there is no secret twist halfway through in which glamour suddenly figures as a major plot point. Jane admirably employs glamour in a number of innovative ways throughout the book to further her own ends and help people in a moment of need … but by and large, the existence of glamour does little to change the nature of this book as a romance.
Doubtless this annoys some readers, who would insist that if glamour exists it has to be for a reason within the story. Why bother having it otherwise? Why not just write a Regency era romance novel and be done with it? Indeed, I would be lying if I claimed that a small part of me didn’t harbour such thoughts. And it’s fair enough to reject this book on these grounds, if that’s the kind of fantasy one is looking for. But I think that would be a mistake. Like Austen, Kowal is writing a story very confined in scope. This is the story of Jane and the Ellsworths, of the Dunkirks, of Mr Vincent and Captain Livingston. But it’s the story of these Austenian characters while they live in a world with magic. And glamour is there to highlight the differences in the social positions between Jane and Mr Vincent—for, unlike Austen, Kowal’s novel is necessarily socially conscious, being as it is a novel of historical rather than contemporary fiction.
Kowal can do things with glamour as a womanly art that she can’t with, say, painting. By inventing a new art all her own, she has the freedom to create mystery and the potential for innovation that would be harder to do with an established and mundane art. Part of the conflict in Shades of Milk and Honey comes from Jane’s repressed ambition, reawakened in her encounters with Mr Vincent, who misinterprets her curiosity and appreciation as an attempt to strip the sense of wonder from his meticulously created illusions. If Jane were a talented male glamourist, she could have become a professional tutor like Mr Vincent, and continued to explore glamour for its own sake. As a woman, though, Jane’s use of glamour is supposedly for entertainment only—for husband-catching. Even Jane herself seems to view it in this light, despite the fact that her talents in the area cause her to experiment and revel in the practising of glamour in a way few others do.
So on balance I appreciate the inclusion of glamour. I’m less enamoured of the attempts to replicate Austen’s clever characters and intricate plotting. Kowal’s painstaking labour to replicate a Regency flavour to the text and speech is laudable, yet in her homage to Austen’s characters, she verges on creating caricatures of a combination of them. Mr Ellsworth is the stereotypical disinterested, amused father figure who cares for his daughters but doesn’t deign to interfere unless he has to. Mrs Ellsworth is the stereotypical invalid/hypochondriac whose sole concern is getting her daughters married. It’s kind of the Uncanny Valley of Regency Emulation, but what bothers me is that I can’t figure out whether the problem is Kowal’s emulation of Austen or my awareness of Kowal’s emulation of Austen.
But if we set this question of style aside for a moment, then all I can say is that I really enjoyed Shades of Milk and Honey. I enjoy the way Kowal sets up the characters, introduces them, before beginning a far deeper and more sinister story full of heroes and heroines and rogues and scoundrels. The plot itself is predictable to anyone familiar with this type of story. That doesn’t matter, though: it’s still a fun Regency romp. This is the kind of novel I might suggest to myself if I were looking for a “beach read,” in the sense that when people talk of beach reads, they talk of books that don’t require much brainpower to plough through—lighter fare. Shades of Milk and Honey has layers of meaning, fantastical elements mixed with Regency drama … but it is still a beach read. It’s easy to follow, easy to enjoy, and perfectly pleasant.