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Monday, July 16, 2012

Review: Shades of Milk and Honey

Title: Shades of Milk and Honey
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Page Count: 304 pages
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: historical fantasy
Copy for review compliments of the public library

Shades of Milk and Honey is an intimate portrait of Jane Ellsworth, a woman ahead of her time in a version of Regency England where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality. But despite the prevalence of magic in everyday life, other aspects of Dorchester’s society are not that different: Jane and her sister Melody’s lives still revolve around vying for the attentions of eligible men.

Jane resists this fate, and rightly so: while her skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face, and therefore wins the lion’s share of the attention. At the ripe old age of twenty-eight, Jane has resigned herself to being invisible forever. But when her family’s honor is threatened, she finds that she must push her skills to the limit in order to set things right–and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.

I kind of make it a rule to stay away from Pride and Prejudice retellings- there seems to be kind of a lot of them out there and they may be really great books (having not read any I wouldn't know) but they typically don't seem like something I would enjoy. While I wouldn't place Shades of Milk and Honey in that camp by any stretch, I do recommend it to any fan of Pride and Prejudice and to any fan of historical fantasy in general.

The story elements here are familiar but are woven together in a fun new way- manipulating glamour means that young ladies of good breeding and family can create elaborate illusions of music and art that come alive for their audiences, with more elaborate manipulations requiring more energy and personal resources. Like its famous roots, it is a truth universally acknowledged that everyone in Regency England apparently needs to get married with the quickness, so Jane and Melody (the sisters who star in this story) are definitely interested in the opinions of the opposite sex.

Jane is a talented woman who feels, unfortunately, that not being a great society beauty means she's relegated to the shadows for the rest of her life, and her nitwit mother doesn't do anything to reassure her or convince her otherwise. Melody is the great beauty, but feels that her lack of other talents means people lose interest in her once they realize she has a pretty face and that's it. One of the main themes of this story is how judging yourself according to other people's perceptions is a fast trip to emotional chaos; Jane and Melody butt heads throughout much of the book but both are more alike than they think.

Obviously, it's not an Austen-esque story without memorable male characters and this is no exception- we have Mr. Dunkirk, the chivalrous neighbor with the vulnerable younger sister, we have Captain Livingston, the rapscallion nephew to the noble neighbors, and Mr. Vincent, the traveling glamourist with great talent who seems to always have a bone to pick with Jane. Everyone has their own motives, and Jane, in her constant practicality, sees people's ulterior motives and tries her best to protect her loved ones, but the mysterious Mr. Vincent puzzles her. Why doesn't he like her? Is that really the problem? Mr. Vincent was my favorite character by far and he and Jane's tangle is a good one.

The plot elements loosely follow those of Pride and Prejudice but it's not a retelling- instead, it takes familiar elements and uses them as a blueprint for a new story. The intricate and vivid details create an interesting world and the romance and pursuit of happily ever after are believable. I was content at the end of the story and looking forward to reading the next installment.

Overall Grade:

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