by Mary Robinette Kowal
314 pages, Tor
Review by Melissa Conway
At the bookstore trolling new offerings in the Science Fiction section, I was surprised to see a small hardbound book with the portrait of a Regency-era woman on the cover. I was immediately curious; had it been miss-shelved or was it actually an SF/Regency Romance blend? Turns out Shades of Milk and Honey is indeed a blend, but the SF is handled so delicately it merges seamlessly into author Mary Robinette Kowal’s Jane Austen-ish alternate-reality world.
In fact, the heroine is named Jane, and fans of Austen will immediately feel at home with the characters—gentlemen and ladies of early 19th century England—and the pastoral setting. The narrative technique is from Jane’s point of view, and employs a familiar subtle mockery of the era’s stiff societal attitudes towards morality and manners.
Jane Ellsworth is not beautiful like her sister Melody. Melody does not have the same talent for Glamour as Jane. Glamour is an illusory form of magic; its users manipulate folds of light and sound to disguise or enhance. The Ellsworth’s neighbor, Mr. Dunkirk, feels that a young woman of substance should be educated in the fine arts, including Glamour. Since both Jane and Melody have their eye on Dunkirk, a rivalry springs up between the sisters. Jane envies Melody her looks and easy manners and Melody is jealous of her sister’s quiet accomplishments. Jane forms a friendship with Dunkirk’s younger sister, Elizabeth, an impressionable girl. Enter Mr. Vincent, the gruff, solitary artist hired by nearby Lady FitzCameron to create a glamural at Banbree Manor, and Lady FitzCameron’s nephew, Henry, whom Jane and Melody knew as a boy, but who is now a grown man, charming and persuasive.
Thus we have our stage set for fanciful shenanigans. Shades of Milk and Honey is a quick read, a pleasant, worthwhile investment of an afternoon’s time. Other than the magic, there are tiny, almost inconsequential indications that we are not in Kansas. Kowal has cleverly altered a fraction of our normal vocabulary (at first I thought I’d spotted a typo) so that when you are having ‘nuncheon,’ it’s really eating ‘luncheon’ and when you ‘shew’ something, you are ‘showing’ it, etc.
This is Ms. Kowal’s debut novel, and this reader couldn’t ask for a more delightful, authentic read.