Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
Tor Books, 2010
IBSN 978-0-7653-2556-3

If imitation is indeed the highest form of flattery, then Jane Austen must be blushing from even beyond the grave.  Not only are there movies and broadcast television productions of her works, cast with theatre luminaries, but there are also many books written from the viewpoint of alternate characters in her works (such as Maya Slater’s The Private Diary of Mr. Darcy, also reviewed in this blog), and pseudo-serious parodies such as the highly touted Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. There is even a popular web offering spoofing two cultural icons: “Jane Austen Fight Club”.

Then there are the imitators in the style of Jane Austen, most of whom create in homage of this spinster writer who wrote so graciously about life and love.  One of the newest and loveliest entries in this “Janeite” genre is Mary Robinette Kowal’s  Shades of Milk and Honey, who takes Austen’s sensibility of Restoration England and adds a fun twist:  along with embroidery, music and the painting of fine china, a young lady in Kowal’s gentry would also know the rudimentary of magical glamour (the ability to “reach into the ether” to magically manipulate shape, light and color, sound and sensation, in order to create panoramas, tableaus, and other gentile decorations).

Jane is the central heroine in Shades of Milk and Honey, and her abilities in evoking the glamour are considerable, even though her physical attributes are far more modest.  She has a lovely yet vain younger sister, Melody, who is not content unless every available bachelor in the vicinity is besotted with her.  Never mind that this also snares any man who may have an appreciation of her older sister’s accomplishments; Jane has pretty much resigned herself to a life of spinsterhood (which doesn’t mean she doesn’t dream of being noticed by sensitive and cultured Mr. Dunkirk).

When dark and moody glamour artiste Mr. Vincent arrives on the scene, Jane’s life is thrown into turmoil.  Eager to learn some of his considerable technique, she is not only rebuffed, but the mysterious fellow appears to be piqued at her well meant interest.  Yet his talent draws her like a moth to the flame and she internalizes his rebukes with well bred angst.

The story gets further tangled when Mr. Dunkirk’s young sister Beth comes to live under his care and supervision; she is strangely skittish and withdrawn but finds comfort in a friendship with the older Jane, whose trusting nature cannot see that dark secrets lurk suspiciously in the young girl’s background.  Vivacious Melody finds herself drawn to a wealthy landowner’s military son, but is there any future in vying for his attention as her family comes from a far more modest deportment?  And will that matter when a girl is fair of face and form?  Add to this milieu even more mysterious histories, gossiping neighbors, romantic entanglements, and mixed messages that thoroughly miss the mark, and you have classic Regency lit.

Of course, we can see where the story is going.  We know exactly who has ulterior motives and who will fall prey to them, who truly is noble, and we know that everything will work out well at the end – but that’s not the point.  The point is sitting back and enjoying the pretty pictures that swirl and flow around us as the characters move toward the inevitable conclusion – and under Mary Robinette Kowal’s considerable talent, the view is indeed pleasant and engaging.

I was a bit disappointed in the scene where the stories all come together in their dramatic climax; it is the only time where it seemed that Kowal strained credibility in an unduly overwrought confrontation which tried too hard to utilize “the glamour” to the detriment of her carefully developed characters.  But she redeems herself in the glorious conclusion and her ability to deftly tidy up any and all loose ends (picture perfect Regency!), so that in the end the book is as lovely as the pastoral tableaus that the glamourists of the story weave from the ether of their lives and their world.

Shades of Milk and Honey may not be “typical” great literature, and it may not have the complexities and darkness that seem to be mandatory in modern literary offerings – but that’s not its aim.  What it does aim for – and achieves – is a gracefulness that can be a breath of fresh air, especially to a reader who appreciates how maintaining beauty in simplicity can take as much skill as penning monolithic epics.  Ultimately, Shades of Milk and Honey may seem light lighter fare, but it is eminently satisfying, nonetheless, and well worth a few afternoons lost to such gracious fancy.

~ by arcticwren on November 30, 2010.

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