Shades of Milk and Honey, a Regency with magic tale of uppity well-off people who are in—no, well, out…er, on second thought, super in—love.
Jane: 28-year-old self-proclaimed spinster (sister, we’ve all been there) who is really super good at ~magic
Melody: super hot younger sister of Jane who is annoyingly fucking melodramatic
Mr. Ellsworth: father to Jane and Melody, pretty much a joyously rotund voice of reason
Mrs. Ellsworth: mother to Jane and Melody, fretty hypochondriac
Mr. Dunkirk: super suave son of a gun who is also an eligible bachelor (hollaaaa!)
Miss Beth Dunkirk: melancholic lil’ sis to Mr. Dunkirk with a ~mysterious past~
Lady FitzCameron: queen of the socialites
Captain Livingston: Hotty Hot McHotterson back from being a stud, childhood friends with Jane/Melody
Mr. Vincent: brooding artist who also has a dark/mysterious past and a horrible bedside manner
Plot summary: Jane is an old fart who has given up on love (foreshadowing on a crazy unexpected plot twist that no one sees coming ever) and is only having it rubbed in more by the fact that her sister is the Gisele Bündchen of the countryside. On the plus side, Jane is super good at an illusionary magic called Glamour, but also has a really long ugly nose apparently. Jane and Melody (aforementioned supermodel) vie for the attention of all of the eligible men so they don’t die unhappy, bitter and alone, because all single women are ultimately that. BUT! When Jane finds out that one of Melody’s suitors is going to take advantage of her and probs run away with all her money, she sets off, with the help of Glamour and some kuh-razy hijinks, to set things right, because Melody has a single digit IQ and can’t do it herself. Oh, also, Jane finds love in an unexpected place.
Hooked? Yeah, I was sort of so-so, too. Glad I got over that, because Kowal’s book is light, easy and fun—once you get into it.
The largest problem I had with this novel with my constant and seemingly subconscious comparison I would draw between Shades of Milk and Honey to the works of Jane Austen—shit, it’s kind of hard to miss when even the author compares the two upfront. They persisted, they were nagging, they were numerous, and because of this, Mary Robinette Kowal’s own work of fiction took the back burner. Throughout the novel I compared Kowal’s depth of character to Austen’s, the stereotypes used to Austen, the setting to Austen…you get the picture, especially when none of those fights really ended in Kowal’s favor (note: I’m not even really a Jane Austen fan, which makes the association even more uncomfortable). In fact, before I started reading it, the only reactionary thing I heard about the book was “it’s like Jane Austen, but with some magic.” I was about two-thirds done with the quick read when it dawned on me: once you realize that Kowal didn’t mean for it to be a direct emulation of Jane Austen and instead a mediocre homage, the book becomes a lot more enjoyable.
In fact, when Austen is cut out, it even becomes fun! When the urge to compare it to something that’s obviously its superior takes over, the novel in question loses every shred of entertainment that it could potentially offer. Instead, it becomes one, big “ugh, really?” For all of the imitative themes, Shades of Milk and Honey doesn’t deserve such a quick dismissal, yet the constant badgering of Austen’s work influencing Kowal, down to Kowal thanking and acknowledging Austen’s work as a source of inspiration, dampens the worth of the book. It really is really a damned shame. It was honestly a conscious effort to push the comparisons far enough out of my vision that I could enjoy the actual work of the author, but it was something that I had to do or I wouldn’t have made it to the end.
Gone are the comparisons to Elinor and Marianne of Sense and Sensibility and left is an unwitting love story filled with melodrama, crazy love triangles, crazier hate pentagrams and some swirly magic called Glamour that makes everything super glamourous looking (couldn’t resist) that would certainly make my world a bit shinier and prettier. That’s where I’m supposed to say something like “but that’s the point of the novel, the use of Glamour versus the grim and superficial actions of the characters is supposed to show us that true beauty is within, and not just because you use parlor tricks to fix your teeth to get all the menz”—however, I’m not about to do that beyond what I just did. Why? Well, because I think that’s a super trite message, anyone with basic puzzle skills can ascertain it, and I actually think that would be accrediting this book with too much. Sure, it got better sans Pride and Prejudice, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the deepest shit ever.
At its worst, this is a book that is frivolous and uncomplicated.
At its best, this is a book that is frivolous and uncomplicated.
Sure, it has a lot of inner drama that sometimes makes you roll your eyes, and maybe once or twice there is a twist that catches you off guard, but it’s never really knocks you off, maybe like a couple millimeters, and that’s perfectly fine. The pages fly by, the end, even though you can see it from a mile away, is satisfying, and even though Jane’s self-deprecation can get pretty bad, it’s bounds better than Bella’s unfounded self-doubts in Twilight. It’s enjoyable. It’s not taxing to read. I even gushed a little at the ending.
At the end of the day, because I had to spend half of my attention trying not to compare it to other things to actually be able to enjoy the wit and pleasure found in Shades of Milk and Honey, I’d give it a 4/5. I’ve heard that the sequel is more Kowal and less Austen, so I’m totally on board.