Initially, I was far from impressed with Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey. It was too obvious that the author was trying to resurrect the spirit of Jane Austen with a little fantasy thrown in. It seemed she was trying too hard and the resulting story felt alien to me. Eventually, the story began to gel, though. It wasn’t Austen, but it wasn’t really meant to be either, was it? This is an homage with a twist, and it works satisfyingly well.
The characters are very Austenian. From the aptly-named Jane and her sister Melody, two sisters united in love, but divided in temperament, to their mother, a hypochondriac obsessed with finding matches for her daughters. The potential suitors: the handsome, but vengeful Mr. Dunkirk, the successful Captain Livingston, and the brooding artist, Mr. Vincent. Drop these characters into the English countryside and the balls of their neighbors, sprinkle in a few engagements and scandals, and one can almost forget the contemporary authorship of this novel.
Shades of Milk and Honey’s fantasy element comes from the existence of “glamour,” an art some are trained in as other’s are trained in paints or pianoforte. By shaping strands of ether and manipulating light, practitioners of glamour weave together what seems like magic. That’s the full extent of fantasy in this novel. No time travel. No magical creatures. It’s so subtle it’s almost nonexistent. And frankly, it doesn’t add much outside of lyricism; still, I’m glad it’s there as it gives this story an element that makes it unique from other Regency era clones.
What separates Shades of Milk and Honey most from an Austen novel is the sense of action. Comparatively, Shades… is action-packed and it seems foreign to the classic light-hearted Regency romp. When bullets started to fly, I was again pulled out of the story. It all works out in the end, but it does have a glaring strangeness to it.
This is a series I’ll return to, though I’m not sure how soon. I think I’d feel some guilt reading the next book in this series without returning to the original first—and by original, I of course mean Austen.