Friday, February 24, 2012

Book Review - Mary Robinette Kowal's Shades of Milk and Honey

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
Published by: Tor
Publication Date: June 7th, 2011
Format: Paperback, 304 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy
Jane and Melody Ellsworth are as different as two sisters can be. Jane is starting to accept the inevitability of her spinsterhood. At 28, there is no hope of finding a husband, particularly when Mr. Dunkirk, the man who holds a special place in her heart, is also the object of Melody's affections. Jane knows her beauty is no match to Melody's. Even if Jane is adept in the magical arts and can make the most fabulous glamours and illusions, she herself knows that men prefer beauty over brains. But more importantly, she would never stand in the way of Melody's happiness. Soon the small group of friends in Dorchester receives a few additions to their ranks. Mr. Dunkirk's younger sister Beth arrives, but the withdrawn and sallow young girl with a mysterious past is nothing to what is happening at the Viscountess'. Not only is her favorite, and need it be said, dashing, nephew, Captain Livingston, is arriving after years away, but she has also hired the famous Glamourist Mr. Vincent to make a wooded wonderland of her dining hall.

Soon everyone is coming and going between the homes with dinners and strawberry picnics, and all manner of enjoyments. Jane starts to hope that perhaps her sisters affections for Mr. Dunkirk is waning, as she befriends his sister and starts to realize that he might indeed have feelings for her, not Melody. The course of love never runs smooth though, neither does felicity between sisters. Melody and Jane have a falling out because Melody is willing to do anything to ensnare her man, even fain injury. Can talent and brains when out over conniving beauty? Or will the answer to true happiness be something and someone different than Jane ever thought.

This is like the best possible Jane Austen mash-up. It's like if Elinor and Marianne had a major falling out with secret engagements to multiple parties. Then on top of everything, throw in some magic! The book is very much a slow burn. For a long time you just enjoy the routine of characters very much pulled from the pages of Austen. Instead of painting or working on embroidery, they are using magic to enhance the world around them, but that is a very quibbling difference. There are the dances, the dinning and the arguments over fabrics at the modiste. Yet under this Mary Robinette Kowal is not only building an ending that packs a punch with the sheer number of Austenian endings happening simultaneously, but a deeper story. The love and passion of art and the character of Mr. Vincent is what pulls you into the story. It's as if Darcy and Elizabeth where dueling artists where their passion was expounded upon more. The revelation that happens through Mr. Vincent's art literally took my breath away with it's beauty, simplicity and passion. It also doesn't hurt if, like me, you keep picture Mr. Vincent as Tony Curran as Vincent Van Gogh from Doctor Who.

The magical element has this book being categorized as in the vein of  Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. While I can see the connections, one couldn't with two books both set in Regency England and employing the use of magic, but I think they are truly very different. Jonathan Strange has a far more faerie aspect, which the excerpt from the second book in this series indicates that Mary Robinette Kowal may start to take that direction as well, but you still don't have that feeling in this first book. Also, for all the Jane Austen vibe in Jonathan Strange, it is a far more masculine book. There are woman, but not really of key character narration variety as here. This is far more a book derived from Austen, versus the entire new world that Susanna Clarke created, but that isn't to dismiss the world building here. The "Glamour" and folds and magic is such an intriguing and fascinating aspect to this world that it binds the book into a cohesive and compelling whole more so than the narrative. Jane and Mr. Vincent are rightfully the heart of this book and I can not wait till I get to read more of their adventures... I only wish I could pick up the next volume right this minute. If you are a fan of Austen, I really think that this book needs to move to your "to be read" pile right now, and yes, I assume, like mine, it's a pile... maybe even two or three. Also, if you need further convincing, I picked up this book because Patrick Rothfuss told me to, or at least the next one in the series.


I read a lot of books because Patrick Rothfuss tells me too, I'm with you there :)

I agree with your review on this one: best possible Jane Austen mash-up!

I don't think he's ever led me astray. I can't wait for the sequel in April!

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