I was interested in Shades of Milk and Honey as soon as I heard it described as Jane Austen “if she lived in a world where magic worked.” It’s a thoroughly enjoyable novel for those who enjoy costume dramas (which means me and most of my family). Although not explicitly a book for younger readers, it’s totally appropriate for my daughter. The tone and themes are very much of Austen’s time period, and the magic is essentially an art form, much like painting or embroidery—glamour is used to supplement paint and music, intricate murals are created to adorn the walls of wealthy patrons. Sometimes it’s used to hide cosmetic imperfections as well.
Jane is our heroine—a 28 year old who is talented in glamour, but plain to look at. Her much younger sister, Melody, is not nearly as accomplished, but very pretty. Their parents are quite worried about marrying off their daughters to ensure their future comfort. The story progresses somewhat predictably, but Jane is an enjoyable main character and the magic is integrated beautifully to bring a twist to a mostly familiar setting.
No one will be surprised that the book ends with a wedding. One thing that makes me very happy is that there are sequels following Jane’s adventures as a happily married woman. I look forward to reading them.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Melody and Jane are jealous of one another—Jane is convinced that everyone values beauty, and Melody is convinced that she has nothing to offer but a pretty face. As a variety of eligible men arrive, these jealousies come to the forefront. It results in some minor pettiness that in the end both sisters are sorry about; they make up again and understand each other better.
I couldn’t help but imagine their parents as the parents from Pride and Prejudice, and I’m certain that’s on purpose. The mother is a victim of her nerves, focused only on how difficult her life is and whether or not she can get her daughters married. The father is a bit more sensible, but given to allowing too much silliness when a voice of reason is needed. The mother does come around, though, when her daughters truly need her.
The jealousy that Melody and Jane have comes primarily from their own self-esteem issues. Melody feels she must fool people into caring for her, so she fakes injuries to get their attention and compassion. She says some cruel things to Jane, playing off of her sister’s insecurities, but it’s due to her own jealousy that she says them. Jane has always been told that she’s plain and that no one could be attracted to her looks, so she consistently misreads things, assuming that any male could only be interested in her sister. Her talent as a glamourist could hardly outweigh the plainness of her face. As a reader, it’s occasionally frustrating that she’s so obtuse, but it’s nothing most of us haven’t done at some point.
Secrets and Propriety
Since it’s a Regency novel, it’s very important to be proper. Appearances do matter, sometimes more than truth. Glamours play into this nicely—is it wrong to, say, fix cosmetic issues with your face when it’s an illusion you can’t possibly hold forever? Is it dishonest to those who will later realize the truth? What about those who already know the truth you’re hiding? And at what cost to yourself, if those glamours are physically draining to maintain?
Jane finds herself in the middle of many secrets and must determine whether it’s right to betray a confidence, especially if keeping the secret may lead to impropriety. Melody is willing to forgive her, realizing that Jane did it in her sister’s best interest. Others are less certain.
Violence and Duels
We learn that Mr. Dunkirk has already killed someone in a duel. It was the tutor of his sister Beth, and she ran away with him at the age of fourteen. However, they had married, which would have made it proper enough. When Mr. Dunkirk learned what happened, he chased them down and killed the tutor in a duel, then brought his sister back home thinking she didn’t know what he’d done.
When Beth has another secret suitor, Mr. Dunkirk chases him down to have another duel. Jane does her best to stop the duel, but the scene is rather intense with pistols drawn, Jane held hostage, plenty of people passing out for various reasons, and someone attacked with a knife. No one dies, but there is plenty of social violence done as many scandals come to light.
Mr. Vincent has had to change his name because his noble family doesn’t think a glamourist is a proper pastime for a gentleman. Jane’s talent isn’t valued very highly by her mother, either. He’s willing to give up his art to offer Jane a comfortable future, but she won’t hear of it. Their art is something they share, part of what connects them to each other.
Mrs. FitzCameron hires Mr. Vincent to glamour their house so it appears that her family hasn’t lost their fortune. Doing so exhausts him nearly to the point of death, but she cares more for appearances than for his health.
Jane becomes a better glamourist as she learns to embrace and channel her emotions, rather than hiding them.
The point of the novel is for Jane to find her true love, and indeed she does. Melody and Beth think they have found love, but he is only a fortune hunter. While there are a few flushed cheeks and chaste but stolen embraces, I don’t remember even a kiss as far as physical affection is concerned.
While the ending is perhaps a little too neatly tied up, a more complex ending is promised in the story continuing in the sequels. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and look forward to reading more—I love that the wedding isn’t the end of their story. It’s suitable for precocious readers maybe 10 years old and up, especially those who love historical romances and costume dramas, and I think my daughter will really enjoy it.
UPDATE: Both my daughter and my husband read this and really enjoyed it. My daughter raised an eyebrow at the perceived age difference between Jane and Vincent, but otherwise it was a big hit with both of them. My husband is also looking forward to reading the continuing adventures!
Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
Published in 2010 by Tor
First in a series, followed by Glamour in Glass, Without a Summer, and Valour and Vanity
Borrowed from Booksfree (although this is one I may have to buy!)