First, a couple of disclaimers might be appropriate: I like Mary Robinette Kowal. She's a nice person, the kind who is easy to converse with and who doesn't take herself too seriously. Vice President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, she penned one of my favorite short stories of the past few years, “Clockwork Chickadee,” a story which delights me each time I read it and is even more delightful hearing her read it out loud. She's very giving of her time to help up and coming writers from teaching them how to do readings to answering basic questions. And she spends a lot of time with puppets. Who can help but like someone who spends her time entertaining and delighting children?
Second disclaimer: other than perhaps a passage or two in English literature classes, I have never read a Jane Austen book, and I think I have only seen one movie based on her work. Despite my weakness for romantic comedies and enjoyment of Nicholas Sparks, I just never felt drawn to Victorian romances. But when Kowal agreed to be with us on Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer's Chat on Twitter, I had to read “Shades of Milk and Honey,” out of an obligation to make the discussion as fruitful for everyone as possible.
Am I glad I did.
The prose captures the feel of Victorian writing beautifully, yet remains simple and accessible for readers who might not be familiar with it. Her characters are well drawn and interesting, and although before I read it I'd have thought I wouldn't be drawn in by the personal politics of a female spinster and her family and neighbors, I literally couldn't put this one down.
A delight from start to finish, “Shades of Milk & Honey” has been aptly described as Jane Austen with magic, but the magic, the manipulation of light through a technique called glamouring, fits in naturally with the story. Although it flows through and undergirds much of the narrative, Kowal maintains a sense of mystery about it by not telling us too much about how it works and instead focusing more attention on how it is used and how it affects the characters themselves.
The story of Jane Ellsworth, twenty-eight, a gifted glamourist in her own right, who dreams of love and happiness as she watches her much younger sister, Melody, and neighbors Beth Dunkirk and Livie FitzCameron wooed by men. When a few men take notice of her for various reasons, hope rises in her, but she always finds the possibilities threatened by others. Jane is too kind and mannered to wallop in her own jealousy and disappointment, however, and continues fighting her baser urges by befriending and caring for her sister Melody and neighbor Beth Dunkirk, whose brother Edmund seems Jane’s most likely suitor.
Then the mysterious galmourist, Mr. Vincent, hired by Lady FitzCameron, the Viscountess, to create a glamour for her dining hall, becomes an intriguing challenge. Jane compares her own skills at glamour to his, while examining his artistry and striving to improve her own. When his response seems to be resentment at her questions and attention, she begins to feel resentment of her own. Especially after he implies her art shows talent without any heart behind it.
There were times I felt Kowal’s foreshadowing made later developments predictable, but in the end, I discovered her plotting to be far more clever than I’d imagined. The ending certainly was different than I had expected in several respects, and the book maintains a sense of suspense and motion which kept me riveted and wanting to know what would happen next. In spite of my lack of commonality with these characters, they captured my heart—I cared about them and what happened to them far more than I’d imagined I would.
For a book which I’d not have chosen on its own based on what I knew of it and my own literary preferences to have so held my interest and charmed me, I feel confident in saying it will likely surprise and charm others as well. Kowal is a smart writer, whose gift for words and understanding of people are readily evident on every page. While one can find small deficiencies with which to quibble in her first novel (as in any other), the book shows great promise and is a great diversion. If anything it’s greatest weakness is its lightness. There is no heavy moral here. And the story does not create a great set of questions one is left to ponder for months after. Instead, the questions and story are light yet still manage to rise beyond mere entertainment.
Truly a worthwhile read from a worthwhile talent. I look greatly forward to what the future will bring from her.