Fantastic Regency Fantasy – Shades of Milk and Honey

This week, Shades of Milk and Honey is:

  • A blend of subtle magic and historical fiction
  • Exactly the kind of gentle romance I like
  • Making me want some strawberries

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

A book cover with the title 'Shadoes of Milk and Honey' and the author name 'Mary Robinette Kowal'. The cover is mostly shades of red and orange, with a young woman in the foreground wearing a Regency-style dress. Behind her, there are magical lights swirling.

Premise

Jane Ellsworth is the daughter of a gentleman in an alternative Regency England.  She is incredibly skilled at using glamour (a form of magical illusion) whereas her sister, Melody, is beautiful.  As both young ladies vie for the attention of their local eligible man, Jane becomes convinced that she must resign herself to spinsterhood.

However, Jane’s small world is about to expand with the arrival of several new people to the neighbourhood.

Criticisms

I’m going to get this out of the way first.

This is entirely a matter of taste.

My only criticism is that I didn’t find the protagonist to be that likable at the start.

She is competent (which I like in a protagonist) and sensible (which I wish more protagonists were) but she lacked any particular warmth.

I can see exactly why this was done.

Jane’s character arc was about her developing those softer and more creative sides to her personality and so she started as extremely practical and proper, and gradually learned to understand and express her emotions.  It means she started out a bit cold.

She does claim to feel strong emotions, it’s just that I didn’t particularly believe her or sympathise with her plight.  Weird, since she is heavily based on Anne Elliot from Persuasion, my favourite Austen heroine.  However, Anne comes across as put-upon and willing to sacrifice her own happiness for those she loves, whereas Jane felt more calculating.

Even the kind things she does, like hug her sister when she is upset, is actually so her sister can’t see her emotions on her face.  Ulterior motive much?

This lessened greatly as the novel progressed and I liked her more and more which I totally get was the point.  Still, it meant it took me a while to actually start rooting for Jane.

Adorations

There are so many strengths to this book I’m not even sure I can cover them all.

The world-building is top-notch.  Seriously

Many historical fantasies, by definition, have to take magic as a part of the world that has affected everyday society and yet hasn’t changed the course of history at all.  That is difficult to pull off.

Mary Robinette Kowal nails it.  Glamour permeates society at every level, from the parlours of genteel ladies to the war ships of His Majesty’s Royal Navy.  However, while it is capable of doing many incredible things, the limits of glamour are clear from the start.

What I particularly loved was the fact that, like many skills, it was considered proper for a young lady to learn them.  But not too much.  And certainly not to earn any money from it or do anything practical with it.  The whole concept is beautifully woven into the class and social structures that are recognisably Regency England.

I am willing to bet that the author has an understanding of the historical period that goes beyond the superficial ‘I read a Jane Austen book once’.  While there isn’t any world-building exposition (thank goodness!), the whole novel is richly layered with details and histories that create the feel of a fully-formed world.

The language is spot on

While I have read several other contemporary books set in the Regency period (both realism and fantasy), many of them use a superficial tone to achieve a Regency-esque sound but it is definitely not Regency.  They have too many modern words or turns of phrase.  Not so in Shades of Milk and Honey.  It is beautifully written in a Regency style that is recognisable and consistent but not difficult to read.

Readers get to spot their favourite Jane Austen characters

This is a fun part of this novel.

Any reader familiar with Jane Austen’s work can tell who a character is based on as soon as they appear on the page.  Kowal leans heavily into these character types so we know what the characters will do already (and who will turn out to be a cad).  It’s one of the delights in reading it.

There are some lovely set-pieces that are an homage to some of Austen’s most famous scenes.  The strawberry-picking, for instance, was both charming and made me hungry.

I love a romance

Shades of Milk and Honey is a charming romance in which both characters learn and grow as they fall in love.  That is my favourite kind.

Perhaps it is the feminist in me (and perhaps Kowal flagging up who exactly the love interest will or will not be) but I took an instant dislike to Mr. Dunkirk.  I was thrilled when Mr. Vincent turned up and promised to be an excellent, prickly, caring hero.

Recommended

I recommend Shade of Milk and Honey for readers who like low fantasy, historical settings and personal stakes for the characters.

The ‘glamour’ is such a gentle element of the story that even people not particularly au fait with fantasy can enjoy it.

It’s a lovely blend of magic and romance and historical fiction.

If you’re interested in other Regency Fantasy, check out my review of Manners and Monsters and The Lady Jewel Diviner.

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