Shades of Milk and Honey
Author – Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: August 3rd, 2010
Cliché as it might sound, if Jane Austen had sat down to pen a fantasy, this is the book she would have written.
—Intergalactic Medicine Show
It might be a cliche, but it seems almost impossible to avoid commenting on Mary Robinette Kowal’s debut novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, without referring to Jane Austen and her classic works of literature. It’s a comparison encouraged by Kowal (who cites Austen as an inspiration for the novel) and her publishers, but lifts expectations to sky-high proportions. For those unfamiliar with Austen the draw of the novel is more likely the melding of classic period literature with the fantastic in the form of glamour, a type of soft magic used by high-society to decorate their homes and enhance theatre. It wouldn’t be unfair of a reader to think of the novel as Beauty and the Beast told from the perspective of the Beast, a play on the classic tale that Kowal herself subverts with some tongue-in-cheek within in the pages of Shades of Milk and Honey; or, if you’re feeling very coy, you might describe it as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies without the zombies.
Ostensibly, because of the inclusion of glamour, Shades of Milk and Honey is a Fantasy novel. The ultimate compliment I can payho the novel, however, is that it succeeds even more greatly on its merits as a period drama. The true strength of the novel is protagonist Jane Ellsworth and her often funny, sometimes sad struggles as she tries to juggle her way through the myriad relationships and politics of a well-to-do noble daughter in 19th century England.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the novel is my response to Jane and her supposed ‘plain jane’ looks. So often, as a reader, we project our ideals onto the characters in the literature that we read. When given a description of a character, even one who is supposed to be ugly or plain, we have a tendency to create an image in our head that is still, if not attractive, at least interesting. Think of the ravaged attractiveness of Mickey Rourke or the odd beauty of Tamzin Merchant. This is doubly true when we’re projecting an image based on the personality of the character in the novel. Jane’s a wonderful, interesting person, and thus it is difficult to picture her image as being anything but a representation of her personality. Similarily, I had trouble picturing her sister, whose beauty is remarkable, as anything but shrewish and petty, with a small petulant mouth. Much of the novel revolves around Jane’s lack of confidnce and the inevitability that she will grow old without ever being married–but she’s so damn likable, witty and intelligent that it’s hard to believe, regardless of her looks, that she wouldn’t have stolen some fellow’s heart–beauty being on the inside, afterall. Without being presented with an in-your-face visual representation of Jane, as in cinema or on television, it’s natural to form an image of her that’s as physically attractive as her attitude is appealing. It’s an interesting limitation of the medium and one that really challenges the reader to work against their preconceptions as they try to niggle out the story as Kowal intended to tell it.
Glamour is also an interesting, and likely contentious, inclusion in the novel. One other reviewer I spoke to complained that the magic was too simplistic and had too little impact on the story. I disagree. Though the story could be told without glamour, replacing it with another art such as painting, it would likely have little chance of finding a foothold in today’s book market. Is there room on the shelves for Austenesque fiction these days? In the wake of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, there’s now huge potential to tap into an audience that wants more of that period drama/Fantasy crossover. I joked earlier about the relationship between the two novels, but, in a sense, it’s true–Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is an over-the-top crossover, but Shades of Milk and Honey does an admirable job of, well… writing Fantasy in the mold created by Austen and fits itself into the genre as a more accessible, more enjoyable alternative to Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.
Second, and key to an overarching theme of the novel, is the role passion has to play in glamour. As I earlier pondered, I suppose glamour could have been replaced by another creative art, such as painting or music, but instead Kowal thrusts Jane into the role of a proficient artist in a medium that requires as much passion and emotion as it does technical know-how or raw talent. Through the art she creates with glamour, and her association with another glamourist named Mr. Vincent, we are able to watch Jane shed the shackles placed on her by an emotionally cool society and embrace her own personality and allow herself to believe that there’s more to life and love than physical appearance and social standing. Kowal deftly balances Jane’s physical deficiencies with her beautiful sister Melody, who pines for Jane’s abilities with glamour and witty tongue.
The biggest drawnback of glamour is that, as a well-read Fantasy reader, I could not help but ponder the potential of the magic as a practical tool. In Shades of Milk and Honey, despite a few references of how impractical it is for naval warfare, we’re only given an understanding of glamour as a superficial magic used for pleasure. We get small glimpses of its practical uses, most particularly when it is used to cool someone who is dying of a fever, and so it’s difficult to avoid thinking of how the magic would benefit society, warfare and science in Kowal’s alternate history version of England. There is no room in Shades of Milk and Honey to explore these ideas, but it’s certainly something I hope to see more of in Kowal’s future novels.
One potential pitfall of writing an Austenesque novel is that it will live-or-die on the deftness and quality of its prose. Kowal, in the fashion of her protagonist, doesn’t back down from such a challenge.
“I had no idea you were such an accomplished musician and glamourist.”
Jane looked away. “It is an idle amusement, sir.”
“Nonsense. Music and the other womanly arts are what brings comfort to a home.” He looked at the palm trees and egrets adorning the drawing room. “I hope to have a home such as this one day.”
Jane put her hand on the piano to steady herself, keenly aware that she was alone with him. “Indeed,” she murmured. “Though I would venture to say that Robinsford Abbey is most gracious.”
“But it lacks that comfort which a wife with the gift of glamour might bring.” He inhaled the scent of honeysuckle and exhaled it in a sigh. “Other men might seek a lovely face, but I should think that they would consider exquisite taste the higher treasure. Beauty will fade, but not a gift such as this.”
“Do you not think that glamour might be learned, whereas beauty is innate?”
“Glamour, yes. But not taste, I think.” He smiled and inclined his head. “It was a conversation close to this topic which prompted my tardy arrival here. Have you had occasion to meet Mr. Vincent?”
“I’m afraid you have the better of me.”
“Ah. I thought Miss Melody might have mentioned him. Lady FitzCameron has retained his services to create a glamural for her dining hall. He is a fascinating fellow, who studied with Herr Scholes and has taken commissions from the Prince Regent. Stunning talent, really.”
Kowal manages to bring to mind the style of Austen and her contemporaries while still keeping the writing fresh and readable. The dialogue is snappy and proper, laced with subtext and accompanied by the proper musical lilt of the period. More impressive is how easily she manages to weave the concept of glamour into the familiar setting of 19th century England. There’s talk of Beethoven, Shakespeare and master glamourists all in the same breath; it never feels unnatural.
In the end, it’s the story of a girl navigating her way through a stuffy society and a love triangle formed by three very different bachelors. Will it appeal to all Fantasy readers? Unlikely. Will it appeal to most Fantasy readers? Also no. Will it appeal to those looking for something unusual in the genre, those looking for an easy, charming read amongst the sea of fireballs, gritty warfare and morally grey characters flooding the genre? Absolutely. Kowal is best known for her short fiction, but Shades of Milk and Honey shows that she has what it takes to produce beautiful fiction no matter the length. It’s the perfect rainy-day novel and, though Jane’s story has been told, I cannot wait to see what else Kowal has up her sleeve.