Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Book Jacket:

Shades of Milk and Honey is an intimate portrait of Jane Ellsworth, a woman ahead of her time in a version of Regency England where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality. But despite the prevalence of magic in everyday life, other aspects of Dorchester’s society are not that different: Jane and her sister Melody’s lives still revolve around vying for the attentions of eligible men.

Jane resists this fate, and rightly so: while her skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face, and therefore wins the lion’s share of the attention. At the ripe old age of twenty-eight, Jane has resigned herself to being invisible forever. But when her family’s honor is threatened, she finds that she must push her skills to the limit in order to set things right–and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.

This debut novel from an award-winning talent scratches a literary itch you never knew you had. Like wandering onto a secret picnic attended by Pride and Prejudice and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell,  Shades of Milk and Honey is precisely the sort of tale we would expect from Jane Austen…if she had lived in a world with magic.

You can read an excerpt here.


Shades of Milk and Honey is a diverting, light and frothy read – but it also is the kind of book you have to be in the mood for.

Any fan of Jane Austen will easily recognize the many familiar elements to this story – it’s essentially a hodgepodge of Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility, with a mother who suffers from nervous complains, a selfish, high strung younger sister, a dashing rake, an estimable man of principle, a young innocent who is taken advantage of, and of course, the sensible and dependable older sister who is named, predictably, Jane. And yet this book succeeds where so many have failed, in that it comes across as a love letter to Austen instead of a cheap knock off.

Let’s be honest – no one can ever hope to truly match Austen’s wit, verve, and utterly romantic sensibilities, but Kowal cleverly adds a touch of originality to her homage with the sly insertion of magic, such that she can take the mannerisms and characterizations from Austen and play with them in a world just a few degrees to the left of the one we know so well – and those few degrees, those small differences, really allow this story to breathe. Kowal firmly enmeshes magic in her Regency society, placing it as yet another accomplishment ladies aspire to, an extension of the decorative nature of being a lady of quality (and yet, being the fantasy fan that I am, I could easily see endless possibilities for what one could do with this type of glamour, but that is for a different type of book). It works, and works well.

But while the magic is a seamless part of this story, and it plays a crucial role, Shades of Milk and Honey is still first and foremost a romance, make no mistake about it. Brimming with all the Regency staples – a love triangle, relationship intrigue, loaded meanings in the briefest of looks and phrases, misunderstandings, and the painful awareness of societal expectations and restraints – it covers the bases with aplomb. And yet while the world succeeds, and while the manners and mannerisms were enjoyable, I did find it all to be a bit predictable and the big romance didn’t entirely make me fall in love. I think I liked the idea of the couple more than the execution – the self realizations that Jane supposedly comes to due to The Love Interest’s influence didn’t entirely ring true, and they don’t really inform the plot or their relationship. Really I just didn’t see enough of their personalities to fully vest in them being a perfect fit – I could believe they would be happy together, but I never got to the point where I believed they were made for each other. Don’t get me wrong, I sighed at all the appropriate places, but Lizzie & Darcy, this is not – it’s sweet, but definitely not a romance for the ages.

I have to say my favorite part of this book was the dynamic between the two sisters – it brought some much needed conflict to the story, and was the catalyst for bringing out the more interesting side of Jane’s personality. The wrangling was fun, engaging, and rang true – though by comparison, it made the rest of the character interactions seem, well, a tad bland. Thank goodness for sibling rivalry.

But again, don’t get me wrong, I did very much enjoy reading this book – I was in exactly the right mood for a light romance, for sweet escapist fun. And while I do think this book manages to distinguish itself as more than a pale imitation of Jane Austen, in the end it still suffers by comparison. My hat is off to anyone who attempts to match wits with Austen, and Kowal succeeds far more than most, but I would still liken this story to a macaroon – entirely sweet, but ultimately not filling, and only right if you’re in the mood.

Byrt Grade: A-/B+

As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…

The Book Smugglers say:

Mary Robinette Kowal manages to adroitly duplicate Jane Austen’s style (down to certain spellings, e.g. “shew”) and levity, creating a pleasant, quick read…However, while Ms. Kowal’s writing may have done justice to the form of Austen’s prose, and features an imaginative magical system, Shades of Milk and Honey unfortunately lacked the strong characters and the sweeping romance of an Austen novel. This isn’t to say that the book is bad – it’s entertaining and frivolous and escapist, and one can easily devour the slim volume in a single sitting. But what Shades of Milk and Honey lacks is the heart and soul of any of the books that it borrows from.

Sherwood Smith says:

This story feels more like a Regency romance, without much of Austenesque irony or complication of character; on the other hand, it is not a retread of Georgette Heyer, which gains major points for me as a reader. (Not that I dislike Heyer or the re-invention of the silver fork sub-genre, I just would like to see authors venture out from under Heyerian influence a tad. And Kowal does try to do that.) The story takes time to warm up, and there are some period glitches (but I don’t think those will be noticed by readers who aren’t conversant with period literature), but when it finally gets going, there is a lot of comedy-of-manners identity mixes with magic thrown in to make it extra zippy. I thought the climactic scene humorously cinematic, though the ending rushes upon the readers a bit, especially considering the sedate start.

A Dribble of Ink says:

Kowal manages to bring to mind the style of Austen and her contemporaries while still keeping the writing fresh and readable. The dialogue is snappy and proper, laced with subtext and accompanied by the proper musical lilt of the period. More impressive is how easily she manages to weave the concept of glamour into the familiar setting of 19th century England. There’s talk of Beethoven, Shakespeare and master glamourists all in the same breath; it never feels unnatural.