Austen with a Hint of Magic in ‘Shades of Milk and Honey’

8697507Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal (Glamourist Histories #1)
Tor Books, August 3, 2010 (Historical Fantasy)

My rating: I’m probably going there again (2.5/5)

I’m feeling a tad stumped for what to write about this book. I feel disappointed but at the same time I know I’m going to read the next book in the series. Shades of Milk and Honey and me, we have a complicated relationship it would seem.

The book is a Jane Austen retelling that falls very close to Pride and Prejudice. I really like classical retellings, so I was quite pleased with this aspect of the book. However, once finished, I’m left wondering whether or not the author stayed too close to the source material.

Jane Ellsworth is a 28-year-old spinster, she lives with her parents and her younger and impetuous sister, Melody. What’s different from Austen’s England is the inclusion of magic; it’s the norm and young, accomplished woman use it as part of their “domestic arts.” Things like enhancing a painting (kind of like the moving portraits of Harry Potter) or hiding flaws in the home are what is expected of women like Jane and Melody. While Jane apparently doesn’t have much going for her in the looks department, she’s a very talented glamourist, and it just may have caught the attention of eligible bachelor, Mr. Dunkirk. Of course, Melody is also vying for Dunkirk’s attentions – as well, as any other single men in the vicinity – so this leads to some strife between the sisters. However, change is afoot when the FitzCameron’s come to town, bringing a handsome young naval man, Captain Livingston and renowned (and brooding) glamourist, Mr. Vincent.For the most part, the novel focuses on the daily life of Jane. She calls on her neighbours, practices her glamours, appeases her hypochondriac mother. It’s a very English picture of life. In one sense, this is where the novels excels, the minutiae of daily life is thrown together with magic. It is so well rendered that I really did feel like I was reading a classical novel. Magic just made sense in this world. However, in a way I also found this to be disappointing, since I am, after all not living in Regency England. What I tend to like about these classical retellings is the inclusion of a more modern perspective and I didn’t get this here. Jane was constrained by the same rigid social structure as Elizabeth Bennet. Jane is expected to marry and able to manage a home well. To an extent, an alternative is offered, but I don’t think we’ll see the effects of it until book 2.

Readers also do not see a deeper development of relationships between characters that we have come to expect in our modern literature. To me, Jane’s relationships with others seemed very superficial. Even her attraction to Dunkirk was based on very little knowledge of the actual man, making her seem much younger than a 28-year-old. While I accept that this would be the norm for the period, I do think a person would have had stronger opinions and thoughts on people and issues. It’s this more hidden personality that I would have liked to have seen in Milk and Honey.

Now, you may be asking why I plan on reading further in the series if I so clearly wasn’t impressed with the author’s adherence to a more old fashioned writing style. To that I say: Mr. Vincent. Be warned, spoilers ahead! He didn’t get a lot of “screen” time in this book, yet he proposes marriage to Jane and she quickly accepts. I didn’t see a lot of evidence for Jane’s feelings towards Vincent; she barely spoke to him, so I wonder how she can even know him well enough to want to marry him? While I again recognize that this is likely commonplace, it seemed rather sudden from a romance perspective. It also didn’t help that Jane was infatuated with Dunkirk until almost the end of the book. I just don’t buy that Jane had that big of a switch of her emotions from one man to the other. Therefore, what I’m really curious about in book 2 is what married life is going to be like for Jane and Vincent considering that they don’t really know one another. I think this movement into married life could prove to be very interesting and I’m curious about how the author is going to work with this in her present writing style.

Ultimately, Shades of Milk and Honey was not what I was expecting. While I recognize the merit in what the author seems to be trying to do, it didn’t completely work for me. However, I do think there is potential for this series and I’ll be checking out the next books soon.

And my last comment about the book – the title. I have to confess, I don’t get it. How does it relate to the book? What am I missing? Someone please fill me in!

Similar Reads

The style of Milk and Honey is very similar to Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons, which is written to imitate an earlier time. Also familiar in A Natural History of Dragons, is the inclusion of the fantastic: dragons. However, A Natural History of Dragons uses a personal memoir format, so readers get a less superficial and more intimate look at the inner thoughts of it’s heroine, Lady Trent.

A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent

Jo Walton’s Among Others has a contemporary setting, but I think it will also appeal to fans of Milk and Honey. The inclusion of fantasy elements is so subtle you’re left wondering whether the narrator really is just imagining it all. It’s also a great coming-of-age tale and a must read for any sci-fi geek out there (lots of title dropping!).

Among Others

Pamela Mingle’s The Pursuit of Mary Bennet is another Austens-set book; alas, there is no magic in it. This one focuses on the period after the events in Pride and Prejudice and takes a look at the least liked sister, Mary, who has come a long way from her unforgiving personality in Pride and Prejudice. It’s a lighter read, but perfect if you’re looking for a nice happy ending for a misjudged character.

The Pursuit of Mary Bennet: A Pride & Prejudice Novel

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