Book review: Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Yesterday, I read Mary Robinette Kowal’s debut novel, Shades of Milk and Honey. I can’t quite decide what I think of it; bits of it are exceptionally good, but I can’t quite bring myself to go back and re-read it. I’m not sure if I will feel differently later. I do know that I would be interested to read whatever she does next, because I would say that this novel is almost extremely good… and I think she might make it all the way next time.

This sounds like damning with faint praise, which isn’t fair either, because (and I realise I am repeating myself here), bits of it really are exceptionally good. In fact, it might be true to say that all the component parts are really good, but they don’t quite come together to make the fantastic whole you would expect from these parts.

Of course, books that are so tantalisingly close to being *right* are the ones it is impossible to resist reviewing. And I do want to go around recommending it, especially to people who like, say, Sorcery and Cecelia (which is both a better book and not quite such a good book, depending how you look at it. I definitely prefer Sorcery and Cecelia, myself). Kowal has obviously immersed herself in Austen and written an Austenian world in which magic (or rather ‘glamour’) is simply another ladylike accomplishment. And she has done this world-building exceptionally well.

I think my favourite thing about the book is the way magic is treated. It’s not a big, special thing, it’s just one of the many feminine arts that make a house a home – we see it used to decorate walls (with ‘glamurals’), to create a pleasing background of someone playing the piano in the distance, to add visual effects to an after-dinner musical performance, to change the level of light in a room or the colour of the air. On a slightly more practical note, we see it used to keep food cold and people warm, and as a way for dressmakers to demonstrate their designs for customers. It’s very much an everyday thing. Like many ladylike accomplishments of the time, glamour is practiced by virtually all women, but hardly at all by men – though the great artists (or glamourists) are male.

All of this really works.

The recreation of Austen’s world is also excellent, possibly the best I’ve read. Kowal has had fun with character types – there is a sister who is certainly informed by Lydia and perhaps Marianne, another young lady who reminds me of Georgiana Darcy, a gentleman who is somewhere between Mr Knightley and Colonel Brandon, with perhaps a touch of the Darcys and even a touch of the gothic hero and another who reminds me very clearly of two characters I will not mention, for fear of giving away the plot – but none of them are mirrors of Austen’s characters, either. The heroine, for example, would certainly get along with Anne from Persuasion and Elinor from Sense and Sensibility, but she also undertakes actions that I could not imagine her taking. And Kowal, having set up these parallels of character and relationship, periodically subverts them in ways that made me very happy. The only flaw I found in this section was the way the rules of chaperonage seemed to come and go for no readily apparent reason. Other than this, the attitudes and speech patterns of the characters seemed spot-on. It does feel like Austen, albeit an Austen writing in a tighter third person than she usually did.

And perhaps this is one of the flaws of the book – I realised after reading it that I hadn’t laughed once during the book. While Austen’s style and world and characterisation were there, her irony and wit seemed to be missing. This, on reflection, may be a result of the very tight third person; much of Austen’s wit stems from that little distance from the characters which allows her to gently point out and poke fun at their absurdities or inconsistencies. It’s difficult to get the same effect in tight third person – most people don’t have enough objectivity to see themselves in that light (and I’m not at all sure they would be sympathetic to read about if they did). I think, also, that the lack of humour somehow affects the balance of the book – there is nothing to leaven the more dramatic incidents towards the end of the book (which, in best Austen style, features revelations and things suddenly going all to hell out of nowhere), and this takes away something, I’m not sure what.

Another odd thing about the book is that I spent much of it reading along happily thinking “This is all very nice, but I have no idea where, if anywhere, it is going”. It isn’t slow moving, exactly, but it is a little meandery, and perhaps a little uncertain about its genre. Again, I’m not describing it very well; but for a large portion of it, it felt as though I was wandering around a very pleasing landscape with no destination or sense of movement. This might be an artefact of the fact that Kowal was still building her world, and it certainly wasn’t unpleasing (especially in my sleepy mood yesterday), but if you like your books fast-paced, it would drive you batty. And it did lead to me turning to the blurb about two thirds of the way through in some puzzlement, because most of what it described hadn’t happened yet. Actually, I’m not entirely sure that it happened at all.

The relationships in the book are good fun; I really liked Jane’s conversations and interactions with the glamourist, Mr Vincent, and with Mr Dunkirk and his sister. Jane’s relationship with her sister Melody annoyed me beyond belief but was probably quite realistic for all that (though how she could fail to guess the identity of Melody’s beau is beyond me – there just weren’t that many men in the book). I liked the romance and the way it came together and was expressed in the end. And I did like the way Kowal set up certain expectations about certain characters, and then subverted them.

And her descriptions of the glamours must have been good, because she actually got me to read them – generally, no matter my intentions, I find that I skim visual descriptions and don’t remember them that well, but I remember a lot of these quite distinctly.

So all in all… there is a lot to like about this book, and I’m not sure why I don’t like it more. If you like the idea of Jane Austen with magic, you will probably enjoy this book. I am looking forward to see what Kowal does with her next book. I will certainly be looking to buy it. But despite all the good stuff, I find that I am still slightly disappointed by this one. I’d be very interested to know what others thought.

ETA: There’s a better review of this book here (better both in the sense that she liked the book more and that I think she wrote about it better than I did – I’m wondering if maybe I missed something)

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