The fantasy novel you’ve always wished Jane Austen had written
Shades of Milk and Honey is exactly what we could expect from Jane Austen if she had been a fantasy writer: Pride and Prejudice meets Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It is an intimate portrait of a woman, Jane, and her quest for love in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality.
Jane and her sister Melody vie for the attentions of eligible men, and while Jane’s skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face. When Jane realizes that one of Melody’s suitors is set on taking advantage of her sister for the sake of her dowry, she pushes her skills to the limit of what her body can withstand in order to set things right-and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.
I read this book for the TBR Challenge Sugar or Spice. This book falls solidly in the Sugar category. There are no sexy times at all, not even ardent embraces or stolen kisses until the end! This is a Regency historical romance with magical elements. I’ll get more into the magic later. Except for the magic it’s solidly in the Regency romance category in all other elements of the story. This was an ok read for me made better by learning the hero and heroine are the main characters of the rest of the books in the series. More on that below. Also my first Mary Robinette Kowal read. I’ve had this book on my Goodreads to-read list for YEARS (almost 5 to be precise) so very nice to read it for this challenge and get started on the Glamourist Histories series.
This story pulls in elements from Jane Austen. I’m most familiar with Pride & Prejudice (read the book, saw the BBC miniseries, love the 2005 movie with Keira Knightley). I’ve only watched the 1995 Ang Lee/Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility movie. I haven’t read that book. If you’re a Jane Austen fan, I definitely recommend this book.
The entire story is from Jane Ellsworth’s point of view. She’s 28 and is considered by many including herself to be very plain and on the shelf, especially compared to her sister, Melody. She did get recognition for her skill in glamour. I recognized elements of Elizabeth Bennet and Elinor Dashwood in Jane. This story started slow for me I think because Jane didn’t seem to be doing much examination of the people around her. She didn’t recognize Melody’s jealousy of Jane’s skill with glamour. She liked Mr. Dunkirk I guess because he admired her glamour work. But she didn’t seem to look beyond that to really examine his attitude towards women until the end during the high stakes action and then she saw maybe his true colors–wanted her out of the way, out of his business, didn’t think she could help.
Mr. Vincent is an expert glamourist hired by a nearby family to glamour their house. I wanted way more time with Mr. Vincent and Jane and Mr. Vincent together. The device used to bring them closer was nice and revealed quite a bit about Mr. Vincent but I really wanted more interactions between them (and will hopefully get that in the rest of the series). Although I get the homage to Pride & Prejudice. I was nervous about whether Jane would play it “safe” with Mr. Dunkirk or take a risk on Mr. Vincent. I do like the attempt at mis-direction–is Jane going to see through Mr. Dunkirk and see it’s really Mr. Vincent who loves her and she should be with?
The magical system isn’t really explained so I’m very curious to find out if it’s explored more in the other books in the series. I don’t think I’ve read a fantasy (historical, urban, etc) where magic doesn’t seem to effect other parts of life. It’s used as entertainment, a party trick at dinner parties, to enhance appearances of self or things. It doesn’t alter other elements of life like transportation, government, etc. The magic is the only fantastical element. Otherwise the rest of the world is 1814 Dorset, England. Same references to ton, Bath, society, etc. I’m left with a lot of questions–can everyone use glamour if trained including commoners? Does skill with glamour give you any more “power” in society or government (doesn’t seem to)? There was a reference to specialization maybe–a cold-monger. Are there other aspects of the glamour people can specialize in? Are all doctors trained to treat overuse of glamour? Also I assume some of the spelling choices were to add to the “fantastical”–“shew” instead of “show”, “chuse” instead of “choose”.
Lots of action and drama towards the end of the book made up for slow going for me through the first half or so of the book. Learning that the rest of the books in this series have Jane and Mr. Vincent as the main characters changed my overall opinion of this book. Seeing this as an introduction to this world and those characters instead of the whole story takes this from a B- to a B+ for me. I wasn’t planning to keep reading the series but now can’t wait to get to the next book and read about Jane’s and Mr. Vincent’s adventures.