“Of his younger daughter, Melody, he had no concerns, for she had a face made for fortune. His older daughter, Jane, made up for her deficit of beauty with rare taste and talent in the womanly arts. Her skill with glamour, music, and painting was surpassed by none in their neighborhood and together lent their home the appearance of wealth far beyond their means. But he knew how fickle young men’s hearts were.”
Presumably, one sister is “milk” and the other is “honey.” They complement each other, yet stand alone, one with sweetness and flashy, showy pizazz, and the other with banal yet comfortable stability. Sound like any other story you’ve heard? Two sisters vying for attentions of the neighborhood menfolk with two completely different approaches: one passionate, erratic and overly capricious, the other steady and mindful and only dimly lit in terms of beauty. Sound familiar?
It did (and does) to me, too. Indeed, the similarities to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility are palpable, from the easily-placed characters and their tastes, feelings, and under-developed motivations, to the plot, with a cadre of viable bachelors parading around and only one of them noble in his intentions. The passionate sister even falls and twists her ankle; the scoundrel is attracted; the sensible sister tries to keep a lid on things. The difference with Shades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal’s debut novel, though, is that many of the plot twists carry a strong sinister twinge. Jealously and bitterness prevail on more than one occasion, bringing rise to an explosive ending as the consequences of deceit, unrequited love and unspoken truths boil over. Add dueling pistols and you’ve got yourself a Regency-era party!
Add in magic, too. Kowal weaves a beautiful magic system in Shades of Milk and Honey, its only shortfall being that it wasn’t fully explained or explored to the extent that I craved. Jane, the Elinor Dashwood of this story, is particularly talented at manipulating “folds of glamour” that are “taken out of the ether.” She laces them together, twisting and winding and pulling them into gorgeous imagery that is both pleasing and purposeful. But how the heck is she doing it, Ms. Kowal? Is there a wand involved? Are we talkin’ spells or hexes or what? All the reader ever discerns about this graceful system is that the efforts spent using it are physically draining, so much that the magician can collapse under the strain or even die. I found myself desperate for more information on this front, and though I could feel an explanation bubbling up from time to time, thinking, “Okay, she’ll finally talk about it now,” it remains a mystery. Dang. That would’ve been cool.
The story itself is moderately compelling and kind of…well, charming in its simplicity. Jane and Melody Ellsworth seek husbands. Melody uses her strikingly well-formed looks to wrangle her potential suitors, not to mention girlish impulsiveness and her attractive yet overly-fluffed sense of confidence in her appearance. Jane is much different, only grudgingly allowing her heart to feel a pang of wanting, being surprised when she discovers that she may not have to be a spinster. Several men waltz through their quiet lives in Dorchester, including the dashing Captain Livingston, the prudent protector of a young sister, Mr. Dunkirk, and a tortured artist as well, Mr. Vincent. Things play out, hearts are attracted some places and then others, secrets and scandals are uncovered, and both the sisters eventually figure out where their affections belong. Dinners and dancing and picnics abound, most of them accentuated by the presence of magic and “folds of glamour” working delightful tricks. The ending is, as previously mentioned, a whirlwind of emotion and heartbreak that leaves all involved parties shaken and changed forever.
The author clearly has a well-honed approach to writing, her prose and structure is lovely and flowing. I did at times feel the characters were far away, intangible, and a bit of a mystery. Still other moments found me wishing the story would slow for a bit of fleshing out. The end almost reads like a fable, with blistering pace, summing up years and years in only a sentence or two. Yes, the characters are archetypical, the brainiac and the fickle beauty queen battling again, in this unexplained world of magic and mayhem, but I still enjoyed it with a kind of reserved enthusiasm. Shades of Milk and Honey represents a solid good ‘ol college try on Ms. Kowal’s part, and I look forward to reading more of her work as she matures and blossoms.
4 out of 5 Stars
Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal
Tor Books, New York (2011)
Trade paperback (304) pages
Cover image courtesy of Tor Books © 2011; text Shelley DeWees © 2011, Austenprose.com