Review: Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

While I do not read romances, and I have not read a book by Jane Austen since high school, I nevertheless decided to pick up Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal. She is a brilliant writer, and I trusted her to write something I could endure. As it turned out, enduring the book wasn’t a problem — the hard part was putting it down.

The choice of detail in Shades of Milk and Honey is exquisite. Everything is described in spare, precise language. I can still see the glass cherries, the nymph’s face hidden in the tree, the dark and stormy bedroom of a heartsick girl. There is not a single wasted word or padded scene. That makes Shades of Milk and Honey a quick read. There is very little action until the dramatic ending, but that does not slow the narrative down. The majority of the book is concerned with interactions between people — with word and gesture, thought and response. I found it enthralling.

I believe the plot will be familiar to readers of romance. Two sisters named Jane and Melody try to walk the narrow path that society has marked for them, with the threat of scandal and ruin pressing in on both sides. Mary Robinette Kowal does not pull her punches in her portrayal of traditional marriage as an economic arrangement between families. As the sisters cannot inherit, they must either marry well or fall into poverty when their father dies. Romance in this setting is a matter of survival. Melody, who is beautiful, has no shortage of suitors. Jane, on the other hand, is cursed with a big nose and brown hair, and believes that she will never find a husband.

The aspect of the book that has gotten the most attention is its magic. Mary Robinette Kowal has made her book’s magic small and subtle, to avoid breaking history. This was not an easy task, and she has spoken at length about it elsewhere. The magic is called Glamour. It is the art of folding the ether to produce small illusions — a dress on a mannequin, a piece of ambient music to liven a party, or an elaborate “glamural” that turns a room into a forest glade. Jane has a particular talent for glamour, which gets her into trouble before it gets her out of it.

Just as the magic has been carefully constructed so as to allow the Regency period to proceed more or less as it did in the real world, the language in Shades of Milk and Honey has been chosen to fit the period. Modern readers will notice obvious examples of archaic English, such as “shew,” but the overall effect is wonderfully subtle, making the book feel right without distracting the reader. Shades of Milk and Honey is a deceptively simple book resting on a foundation of solid research.

I am told that there are plans for another book, which will involve swashbuckling. I can’t wait. I had my doubts about this book at first, but I’m glad I gave it a chance, and I am looking forward to the sequel.