Mary Robinette Kowal

Pan Macmillan (2010)

ISBN: 9780765325563

Reviewed by Tansy Rayner Roberts

When I first saw this book described by the author as being the book Jane Austen might have written had she lived in a world with magic, I did think that was a bit much. Obviously I wanted to read such a book, but really, comparing yourself to Austen? Isn’t that reaching a tad high, especially for a debut novelist? Also, let’s face it, a lot of authors have jumped on the Austen bandwagon. I’ve been burned by a lot of bad sequels to Pride and Prejudice, and while I never actually got around to trying that novel with added zombies, I did read a page of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and I’m never getting that thirty seconds of my life back!

But then I read this book, and I realised what was going on here.

Shades of Milk and Honey
is a novel so immersed in Austen and what for the purposes of this review I shall call Austenalia, that it seems impossible to read it any other way. It verges on parody, though the clever use of language and extreme authenticity of characters keeps it on the right side of that line. Which is not to say that there is not a hint of mockery about Austenian conventions in this book – but it’s the gentle kind of mockery that comes from someone who genuinely loves that author’s work, as opposed to, for example, the clumsy and appallingly offensive Red Dwarf episode written by Robert Llewellyn who had obviously never even watched a costume drama all the way through to the end…

Where was I?

I can’t speak to the reading experience of Shades of Milk and Honey if you are not familiar with Austen – I think it would still be a very enjoyable story, a pleasing combination of magic and historical romance with strong family relationships and much social detail. It fits very nicely into the current fashion for women’s historical fantasy, and while it differs a great deal from Alaya Johnson’s Moonshine and Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, I can see it sharing their reading audiences. There is a potential here for mass reading appeal among the non-spec-fic community, as with The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, the Naomi Novik novels about Temeraire, or the admittedly-not-genre The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler, and the book seems packaged to make the most of that potential readership. I hope it finds it!

To an ardent reader of Jane Austen, this book becomes something far more than a clever historical fantasy with lots of female characters. I enjoyed very much seeing the ways that Kowal had woven themes and character elements from all of Austen’s books into her single story (pleasingly there is less of Mansfield Park than anything else, and only the non-Emma bits from Emma). The heroine, Jane, feels like a combination of Lizzy Bennet, Eleanor Dashwood and Anne Elliott. Her sister Melody verges on being a Lydia Bennet at times, with a healthy dose of Marianne Dashwood, but there is I think a strong vein of Jane Bennet deeply hidden in there, beneath her spiky and unpredictable layers. The parents are very Bennet-like, but far warmer and less irritating to spend time with, especially the mother. There are several red herring romances, which require you to figure out which gentleman is the Frank Churchill, or possibly the Willoughby, and whether there is a Wickham in the bunch. There is a Bingley-Ferrars, though is he Bingley-Ferrars enough, or is his Bingley-Ferrarsism in itself a red herring? There’s another character who is strongly Georgiana Darcy plus Jane Fairfax, with the reading habits of Catherine Morland. It’s a gorgeous Austenalian jumble, and sorting the threads is an excellent game. I’d love to have a spoilerific discussion on this book with a bunch of other Austen fans. There might have to be mindmaps and/or Venn diagrams.

There is a strawberry picking scene, a maze, several theatrical performances, several balls and at least one secret engagement, rendering the novel a veritable cornucopia of Austenalia. But this is by no means all Shades of Milk and Honey has to offer. As if to make a statement as to the limitations of Austen, having embraced that author’s style and sensibility for a large part of the books, Kowal throws off the Austen shackles in the final act, allowing for more action and drama than the original Jane ever let happen in her own literary climaxes. At this point, the whole thing does start to feel a touch more like a Georgette Heyer novel, but once I recovered from my surprise at the shift, I appreciated the statement that Kowal was making, which is very much that modern readers expect a more satisfying outcome from novels today than simply making a “good” marriage, and indeed that our definition of a “good” marriage is quite different. Also everything can be improved with a carriage chase and pistols. Kowal embraces the pleasures of a good Austen novel, but allows herself the freedom to move beyond those constraints to produce the ending that she definitely wanted us to have. And what an ending!

I hate to say it, but I sort of feel now that Kowal’s Jane might be my favourite Austen heroine of all time. She combines so many elements of my favourite Austen women, with an extra spark of that rebellion we all wanted those characters to have, right? Jane’s romance, which I will not discuss because discovering it is part of the beauty of the book, is deeply satisfying, and convincing. Her other relationships and friendships are also important to the story, and seeing the world of the book and the working of magic through her eyes is a genuine pleasure.

The fantasy element of the story is elegant and integrates surprisingly well into the Austenian drawing room. The magic of this world is called glamour, and is mostly worked by women as one of the “accomplishments” along with music, sketching and needlework, though it is significant that the only person we see working as a professional glamourist is a man – much like the rest of the art world! The mechanics of glamour are beautifully and clearly explained, and we see the various ways in which the wealthy houses in the Austenian world utilises that power, to increase the appearance of wealth and luxury.

At its highest form, glamour is an art to be patronised by the very rich; at its lowest, it can be used to enhance a maiden’s appearance. The question of other practical uses, particularly to the army, are touched upon, and become an intrinsic element of the dramatic finale. There are also built in limitations to this magic, whereby the glamourist who over-exerts themselves risks their health, and we see various consequences of this throughout the story as well.

I was expecting a great deal of sly subversiveness in this tale of Austenian England and magic, and I was not disappointed. Gender issues are a strong theme in the story, though they are handled quite subtly, and in some ways only serve to call to attention the way that Austen herself was already making some quite subversive points about gender, and the restrictions on women in her time. Shades of Milk and Honey did not turn out to be quite as subversive as I secretly hoped (I grew quite distracted at one point wondering if one of the secret romances would turn out to be queer, and was disappointed in that – if Jo Walton had written this book, there would totally have been lesbians) but it is very much a story that builds upon Austenian domesticity to show that yes, you can tell a marvellous story in which the main stakes involve marriage, status and reputation, without getting any of those messy wars and quests in the way.

This is a fantasy novel you could buy your non-genre reading Mum or Dad or sister-in-law for Christmas, as a way of sneakily introducing them to what the genre has to offer other than “those dragon books”. It’s absolutely one of the best books I have read so far this year, and I cannot recommend it enough.