Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Shades of Milk and Honey - Mary Robinette Kowal

About the book

Shades of Milk and Honey is exactly what we could expect from Jane Austen if she had been a fantasy writer: Pride and Prejudice meetsJonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It is an intimate portrait of a woman, Jane, and her quest for love in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality.

Jane and her sister Melody vie for the attentions of eligible men, and while Jane's skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face. When Jane realizes that one of Melody's suitors is set on taking advantage of her sister for the sake of her dowry, she pushes her skills to the limit of what her body can withstand in order to set things right--and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.

304 pages
Published on: August 3, 2010
Published by: Tor
Author’s webpage


There are quite a few eras I’m glad I don’t live in. The Victorian era is one of them. It’s never appealed to me and I have never been a Jane Austen fan. I’m just too blunt and straightforward for Victorian manners. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy is trying to write a letter to his sister and he keeps getting interrupted. His response is something along the lines of, “Let me convey your sentiments to my sister another time. I don’t have the room to do justice to your words.” While that is polite and sweet, it is a far too long and roundabout way to tell someone to shut up for my taste. My overall impression of the Victorian era can be summed up with that.

Knowing that, you may be wondering why I chose to read Shades of Milk and Honey, since all the reviews I’ve read so far mention Jane Austen somewhere in them. The answer isn’t very exciting. I’m in the mood for some light reading right now and I’m also looking to read something new and different. This book fit both categories. I will admit that if I weren’t in the mood for something like this, I would probably have had a very hard time with this book.

Shades of Milk and Honey will appeal to Jane Austen fans. Kowal’s writing fits the period. She pays close attention to the details that many authors would overlook. This often gives way to long descriptions of various rooms, proper social protocol and the like. Some readers may find this tedious, but most will probably find it charming.  Due to this, Kowal never breaks the Victorian tone of the book. However, while the descriptions and style of writing were incredibly impressive and very polished, they never caused me to feel like anything but an observer in the events that took place, which disappointed me greatly and the world never really came alive.

The pace of Shades of Milk and Honey also had some problems. Due to the long-winded descriptions, the plot seemed to crawl at a snail’s pace at parts and, due to feeling like an observer while reading, I never experienced any of the charming atmosphere that many other reviewers have discussed. The slow pace made these two issues nearly unbearable at times, especially when the ending became obvious. Basically, there was a lot of description and a lot of tittering about, but for much of the book, nothing really happened. The plot itself was very straightforward and predictable. For those looking for entertainment, this will be perfect. The rest of us might feel the book lacks some important complexity. 

Glamour, the magic system in Shades of Milk and Honey was very quaint, but even that lacked.  There was no description on how it worked besides a mention of folds and sewing. I never had an understanding of glamour. In fact, it felt more like an afterthought than anything else. It was the addition of glamour that brought this book from fiction to fantasy. However, due to the fact that it was such an important part of the plot at various points, glamour really needed to be more fleshed out and understandable within the context of Kowal’s world.

Kowal’s characters were about as interesting as her world, but like her world, they weren’t very fleshed out or well rounded. It was interesting to see the world through Jane’s eyes, but the emotional distance between Jane and the reader is so vast that she never really becomes real or alive. In fact, Jane seems more like a means to an end. She’s a way for the reader to read about events that transpire, but there isn’t much more there. Many of her actions, specifically regarding the ending made no sense in the context of Jane’s previous actions or decisions.

Despite all of these issues, Shades of Milk and Honey was enjoyable for those who are willing to appreciate it for what it is: a surface level read good for entertainment, but not for deep thought. Fans of Victorian manners and/or Jane Austen should check this book out. Kowal’s writing is charming and her research of the period is obvious and thorough. However, when looked at a bit closer, Shades of Milk and Honey is average. It lacks depth, the world and characters aren’t well rounded and the magic system seems dropped in on a whim and rather nonsensical. It’s worth giving this book a shot. It’s a very quick read that just might surprise you.

2.5/5 stars


  1. I've never been a fan of these kinds of books, shoehorned magic system or no. But it'll make a damn good Christmas present for an Austen/fantasy fan I know :) Thanks for the review!

  2. I actually didn't think I'd enjoy it and did. Her prose is beautiful. I was a but frustrated by the lack of detail to explain the glamours, but I full expect her to correct that in later books. I thought the story was well told and a fun, quick read over all though.