Shades of Milk and Honey (2010): Mary Robinette Kowal


It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young woman, of modest birth and even more modest fortune, must be in possession of numerous accomplishments if she hopes to find a husband. The two Ellsworth sisters of Long Parkmead have certainly done their best in this respect, having studied the gentle arts of music, painting and glamour. Their hopes rest on Melody, the younger, whose prettiness and vibrant spirits are expected to attract a fine match. Jane, the elder daughter, is plainer and quieter, but far more gifted than her little sister in the use of glamour. When their simple lives are disrupted by the arrival in the neighbourhood of a dashing captain and a brooding glamourist, the scene is set for a delicious comedy of manners – with just a little extra magic. This elegant Regency romp certainly wasn’t the kind of book I’d expected from Mary Robinette Kowal, since I’d only read her Lady Astronaut of Mars before this, but I was immediately charmed by a novel that embraces so much of Austen’s spirit with such success and affection. Imagine it as Georgette Heyer with a side of light sorcery.

As the daughters of a modest country gentleman, Jane and Melody move in a small social circle of gentry neighbours. Chief among them is the amiable Mr Dunkirk, for whom both sisters cherish a secret liking, but they are also on friendly terms with the wealthy FitzCamerons. When Lady FitzCameron decides to throw a ball, on the occasion of her nephew Captain Livingston’s visit, a new potential suitor enters the ring and Melody – always ready to have her heart captured – is determined to catch his eye. (Her mother, in true Mrs-Bennet fashion, is equally determined.) Jane certainly enjoys balls, but she is less concerned with dancing and fripperies. She knows that her sister has the better chance to attract a good husband, and that Jane’s job is to facilitate a good match in any way she can – suppressing her own feelings if possible.

Besides, she spends little time thinking about potential husbands. Her great passion is for creating glamour, usually of a modest form intended to brighten up the drawing room with fresh scents or ornaments. Despite the limited canvas she’s had so far, her talents are prodigious and she knows enough to recognise the hand of a master. At the FitzCamerons’ ball, she is enchanted by the glamural created by Miss FitzCameron’s new glamour-tutor, the taciturn (and frankly rather boorish) Mr Vincent. Never has she seen anything as beautiful or as advanced. If only she could spend some time studying with Mr Vincent herself! Just from professional interest, of course, for the man is so impossible and rude that any kind of polite conversation is out of the question. And yet… and yet…

In reading this book, you find yourself enveloped by a warm sense of familiarity, for Kowal lovingly riffs on Austen’s plots – especially Pride and Prejudice, with its highly-strung mother, lovesick sister and sensible heroine, not to mention the presence of a cad in uniform (come now, that’s not a spoiler. If you were an Austen heroine, would you ever trust an officer?!). Best of all is the central relationship between two very bright people, each highly gifted, whose relationship gets off to a rather tricky start but who – you suspect – would do rather well together if they could only pierce their froideur. Obviously it isn’t wildly original and inventive, but it isn’t trying to be. It’s a comfort blanket: a story for a bleak, wet winter’s day with a mug of tea to hand. It’s a wonderful homage to Austen’s work without being too derivative, and the invention of glamour as an additional accomplishment – a kind of light, decorative magic, suitable for ladies to dabble with – gives Kowal extra scope for setpieces. She evokes her characters’ glamurals so beautifully that you want to wander among them for a while.

On finishing this book, I was delighted to find out that it’s the first in a series. I’m looking forward to spending more time with the characters, exploring Kowal’s imagination and learning more about glamour and its possibilities. Highly recommended for those who want some gentle escapism, spiced with just the very faintest hint of enchantment. If you don’t usually read fantasy, don’t dismiss this out of hand, as glamour is treated as just another skill to be learned – this is certainly far more at home among Regency romances (of the best kind) than it is among your average high fantasy novels. A loving homage by an author in complete command of her story-telling, and great fun.

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