Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Book Review: Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: Shades of Milk and Honey
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal

First line: The Ellsworths of Long Parkmead had the regard of their neighbours in every respect.

Review: The basic gist of this book is Jane Austen with magic, which pretty much sold me, and it's been on my TBR since its 2010 release. In the meantime, I've loaded up on Kowal's short fiction, which I love, and have been gobbling up her writing advice via her fab writing craft podcast, Writing Excuses.

Sadly, all that time waiting lead me to an anticipation that this novel just couldn't meet. It's a fluffy fun Austen homage, breezy and brisk, but felt too short and a little too thin for my tastes. (Also, I cannot fathom the title's connection to the story!)

There's a mishmash of Austen elements in this novel, from Pride and Prejudice to Emma, and it's a very fun to see what threads Kowal includes. Our heroine, Jane Ellsworth is not pretty, but gifted in the arts and skills of a proper woman, including working glamour -- magic. Her sister Melody is pretty. Their mother is a hysterical hypochondriac. Jane fancies their neighbor, Mr Dunkirk, and charms his younger sister -- who seems to be having a fling with someone she shouldn't. The moody and broody Mr. Vincent, gifted glamourist, finds offense in everything Jane does. In the end, Jane behaves as no Austen heroine would (hooray!) and is justly rewarded.

The use of magic here is very mundane -- decorative elements, some cosmetic -- and at times I forgot I was reading a fantasy, it felt so natural. Fantasy can be very hit or miss for me, but I liked the light touches and especially enjoyed the societal implications of magic -- a domestic art, to be sure, but ultimately the grand works and admiration go to the rare men who make it their craft. Still, I wanted more: more about the characters, more about glamour, more about Jane's world. (Although the hardcover is 300 pages, I swear the formatting is what gave it that page count -- this read so quickly!)

There are five books set in this world, following Jane, and I'm already on the third one.(The second book reads entirely different from this one -- less Austen-y and more ambigu-Regency, which is fine by me.)

I feel like this review is damning with faint praise, and perhaps it is. If this were a standalone, I would probably be unhappier than I am, but the remaining four books make me feel a little forgiving -- I can still try to gobble up the details I'm hungering for. Other readers may not feel so kind!

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Fantasy / 19th Century / UK / Austen Inspired / Magic / Romance / Intrigue / Sisters)
Publisher/Publication Date: Tor Books (8/3/2010)
Source: My public library
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction


  1. Its sad when a book does not work out for one and worse when its an Austen variation. I always look on it as the ingenuity of an author and most of them do wonders with the original! I am always stunned at the creativity.

  2. Really doesn't sound like my sort of thing, but the cover is really nice.

    1. They've redone the covers of subsequent books to more accurately (I think) convey the sense of the story -- more fantasy-ish -- this cover, which I like, feels v hist fic to me.

  3. I really love Austen variations, but this one seems like it might not be up to par.

  4. I have always wanted to love Mary Robinette Kowal better than I do. I've tried this and at least one other of her books, maybe two, and even though they're quick and inoffensive reads, I never do finish them. I'm with you -- there's just not enough THERE.

    1. Isn't that weird it feels that way. I am going to try one more full length novel outside of this series and if that one doesn't work, will just stick to her short fic.

  5. This also disappointed me. I so wanted to love it and the world Kowal create had great potential. And if you're going for an Austen theme the romance better be good and that also didn't deliver.

    Is it worth it to give the next one in the series a chance?