Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey was a beautifully crafted tale that melds fantasy and historical fiction, a combination I’d love to read more often. I was certainly intrigued with the description of this book: “Jane Austen + Magic” but my attention was held by the heroine and her singular presence.
Jane Ellsworth, is an old maid at the unseemly age of 28, and has a complicated yet close relationship with her younger sister, Melody, who has been graced with beauty and charm. Jane, however describes herself as plain, with a nose that is too long, and limp, brown hair. What’s that? A main character who’s description might actually more closely resemble my own? What a novel idea! I felt a comaraderie with Jane that doesn’t come as naturally with drop dead gorgeous heroines, as she was a type of woman who seemed more real, and as a a result, like a second skin I could slip in to, as the narrative played out. While Jane isn’t blessed with conventional beauty, she is extremely talented in working glamour, a form of magic in this alternate universe that involves the manipulation of light and ‘folds’ to create illusions and mirages.
There is an intriguing tension between Jane and Melody, where you can sense the uneasy balance between friend and competitor that their relationship revolves around. They most closely reminded me of Elinor and Marianne from Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, although Kowal does create a time and place that is very much her own, while paying homage to her influences. The pace of the story is certainly in tune with the Regency period. There are balls and dinner parties, and rambles through country lanes, and societal expectations galore. Potential love interests and tragic secret pasts linger on the borders of this magical history. There’s a dashing visiting artist, Mr. Vincent, whose taciturn ways are immediately at odds with Jane’s open nature.
One of my favorite parts of Kowal’s world building was the comparison of working glamour to being an artist. I could readily imagine how one would pull threads together, and weave magic based on her thought provoking descriptions. Glamour is known as a womanly art (appreciated but undervalued), making the heroine’s dedication to her craft in a man’s world, that much more astounding. I found myself truly invested in Jane’s quest to establish her voice, and I look forward to seeing where her convictions lead her in the sequel, Glamour in Glass.