Shades of Milk and Honey
Mary Robinette Kowal
Tor Books, 2010
I’ll just say it flat out: I enjoyed this book. It offered me exactly what I needed–a short escape from the stresses of the holiday season. It’s a cozy novel, predictable in that it follows the basic structure of Jane Austen’s novels, and doesn’t attempt to solve any major social questions beyond “who’s going to marry for love this time?”
The author of the book describes its premise as “Jane Austen with magic.” That seems pretty accurate, honestly. The book starts off by introducing us to Mr. Ellsworth, a man blessed with a nervous wife, an entailed estate, and two marriageable daughters. The older daughter, Jane, is respected in the community for her magical talents, but not her looks. The younger daughter is well-regarded for her looks, but not her talents. Yet both must find husbands somewhere.
Other reviewers have complained that the magic in the book isn’t being used for any real purpose beyond decoration. To which I’d respond simply, what else would a genteelly born woman of the period be allowed to use it for?
You could argue that Mr. Vincent is at fault for not using his talent to improve the world at large in some fundamental way, but Kowal’s presentation of glamour as a decorative art performed mostly by upper class women for their own domestic comfort/entertainment seems fairly consistent with the Regency period as I understand it.
The other complaint I’ve heard about this book is that Kowal borrows so heavily from Austen’s characters, plots, and scenes. Yeah, I get that one. I was pretty irritated too by the obvious borrowing going on, especially at the beginning. But midway through, my sense of fun took over and I turned the question of “which Austen novel did that [character/plot/outing] reference?” into a game. Things rolled along much more pleasantly after that.
All in all I had a good time with this book. It’s a fun addition to the Jane Austen fan fiction genre. I can easily see myself picking another book by Kowal the next time I need a cozy beach read on a -4F December day.
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