Review: Shades of Milk and Honey

Note: This is a review I originally posted on Goodreads. From time to time I’ll take one of those reviews and repost them here, where people are more likely to actually read them.

Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal

I was intrigued by this book when I heard it described as “Jane Austen novels set in a world where magic is real.” It was an interesting concept, and I wanted to see if the conventions of an Austen novel would mesh with the conventions of a fantasy novel, so I bought the eBook through Barnes and Noble’s website.

I am, admittedly, not a devoted Jane Austen fan: I am a pretty solid casual fan, having read and enjoyed almost all of her books, but I lack the ardour and scholarship more committed fans devote to her work. From that perspective — someone who enjoys Austen’s work but doesn’t hold it under a microscope — “Shades of Milk and Honey” is a book that would fit perfectly in her canon. Mary Robinette Kowal has done an excellent job in creating a story that feels authentically like an Austen novel, including a magic system that works well within an Austen-friendly universe, and tells a story that is interesting in its own right. The last bit is the most important part, in my opinion, but the fact that all three hit their marks is significant.

If you open the book expecting to see Miss Elizabeth Bennet with magical powers you will be disappointed. Austen’s protagonists are not all the same in temperament, and some are markedly more frustrating than others. I would describe Jane, Kowal’s protagonist, as a mixture of Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility) and Anne Elliot (Persuasion). I think this association may be intentional on the author’s part because Melody, Jane’s sister, reminds me of a mixture of Marianne Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility) and Elizabeth Elliot (Persuasion). The mixture works well for Jane, who settles in as a responsible, sympathetic Austen heroine who is unaware of and undervalues her strengths. The mixture is a bit more unsettling for Melody, because she walks a tightrope between charm and selfishness that makes her very hard to like at times. Jane’s relationship with her sister is one of the bigger obstacles to Jane’s happiness, and at times it’s a very frustrating one, though as the story progresses Melody’s actions are humanized and she becomes more sympathetic.

The magic in “Shades of Milk and Honey” is interesting because on a first pass it seems so utterly trivial, and yet is held in very high esteem. It is broadly illusion-based magic that can, with effort, be manipulated to create permanent effects, and is primarily used (at least by this level of society) to beautify a home. The magic is generally considered the domain of women (though I noticed that whenever the book referred to an instructor of magic, especially one of reknown, the instructor was invariably a man). Overall the society views the use of magic as being artistic in nature, and respected because of it, but other than the ability to make things cold it’s not given much practical value, and attempts at using magic practically (i.e. to improve one’s appearance) are generally frowned upon. But pieces of the story hint at the magic being on the edge of becoming more than what it is–almost a prelude to magic’s equivalent of the industrial revolution, I suppose. I don’t know if that was the author’s intent, or if it was me reading more into it than there was, but I’m going to read the sequel to find out.

The general arc of the story is classic Austen, with eligible (and rich) bachelors, unmarried women of varying fortune, callous deceptions, rakes who appear to be gentlemen (and gentlemen who appear to be rakes), crazed parents and gossipy peers. Part of the fun of this story is trying to figure out which character fits which Austen archetype (and then being surprised by the way each archetype is tweaked).

I’m not sure how a more studious Austen fan will react to the book. I think it is obviously modeled after her work, and I have no trouble with the description that first caught my eye (“Jane Austen novels set in a world where magic is real”) because it does, in my opinion, capture the essence of Austen’s work. But it is its own story, and goes off in its own directions because of it. I admire the book for its similarities and differences, but I wonder if someone who has spent more time studying Austen’s work might find the differences more frustrating, just as a scholar of Middle Earth might find the Lord of the Rings movies frustrating. I can’t answer that. I think, however, that it is more than fair to compare “Shades of Milk and Honey” with Austen’s work, and that the comparison rings true from the perspective of a casual fan.

That was a long-winded way of saying “I really liked the book, but it’s probably not the book you think it is.” Which is ultimately what I think a book should be. I recommend it, and I look forward to the sequel.

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