Mary Robinette Kowal is one of the Writing Excuses podcasting team, former vice president of SFWA, and a Campbell Award winning author. As I’ve vowed to read something from each of the podcasting team, it’s time I got to her work. Shades of Milk and Honey is her first novel. This book is billed as “Jane Austen with magic”, and that’s accurate. In many ways it reads like a more accessible Jane Austen novel, and if it weren’t for the magical element you’d see little difference in the settings or subject matter.
The story centers around Jane Ellsworth, a rather plain but accomplished woman (she’s 28, which today still counts her as a young woman, but in the Regency era made her practically an old maid), and her pretty but unaccomplished younger sister. Their family is not wealthy, and so their father and mother are determined to marry them off as well as their dowries will allow.
One of Jane’s talents in in glamour, a form of magic that allows the artist to create permanent and temporary illusions. While this attracts the attention of her neighbors, it is always her sister Melody who gets the attention. Soon their lives are tied in knots when both women begin receiving attention from numerous gentlemen, some of which they share affections for. In the end Jane must use all her skills to unravel the nasty mess that is made of everyone’s lives by a suitor who is not what he seems.
I enjoyed the novel, and it was a quick read. I found the characters interesting, and the concept of glamour an interesting addition. The story is solid and well-told–nothing comes out of nowhere, and most loose ends are tied up. There’s even a nice love-triangle set up that quite frankly gave me little concern because she would have done well either way, though one man is shown to be a bit of a jerk in the end in order to clear the way for us to be happy for her final choice.
One thing the novel does not do is “out-Austen” Jane Austen. There is a wit and lightness to Austen’s writing that is unique, but if you’re hoping for a “new” Jane Austen novel, this isn’t it. I don’t think Kowal even tried to write like Austen, merely capture some of the feel. The settings feel at least as solid as a Jane Austen screenplay adaptation, but Austen wrote with all the depth and detail of someone living in the era, which is difficult for anyone today to approach.
So if you like Jane Austen, go read Jane Austen. But save some room afterward for Shades of Milk and Honey. Austen may be the main course, but Kowal is at least dessert. The sequel, Glamour in Glass came out a few months ago, and I hope to get to it some day. I suspect, based on the blurb, it will depart even further from the Jane Austen oeuvre and venture more into adventure, but I suspect I’ll still enjoy it.