Wednesday, April 15, 2015

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: July 26th, 2010
Format: Hardcover, 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 Dunkirk's younger sister Beth arrives, but the withdrawn and sallow young girl with a mysterious past is nothing to what is happening at the Viscountess's. Not only is her favorite, and need it be said, dashing,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 are waning, as Jane befriends his sister and starts to hope 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.

Shades of Milk and Honey is like the best possible Jane Austen mash-up, drawing threads from her entire oeuvre. 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 the characters very much pulled from the pages of Austen. The domesticity of everyday life is here on the pages for us to fall into. But instead of just painting or working on embroidery, the characters are using magic to enhance the world around them. There are the dances, there are the grand diners, and there are the arguments over fabrics at the modiste. Yet under the guise of Jane Austen fanfiction, like the threads of ether invisible to the naked eye used in a glamour, 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 about art and passion and love.

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 and Mr. Norrell has a far more faerie aspect. But more then that, for all the comparisons to Austen, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a far more masculine book with female undercurrents. Whereas Shades of Milk and Honey is derived more directly from Austen and stays within the female sphere. In fact, I will assert that, despite being of the same subset genre of the other Regency Magic books out there, Shades of Milk and Honey is so uniquely its own that it sets itself apart by the cunning deviations of magical usage.

In all the books I've read over the past few months set during this time and dealing with magic, the magic itself has practical applications. The magic is used for defeating foes, vanquishing Napoleon, this is, after all, the prime time to vanquish him, and other active endeavors. Now I'm not saying that the magic system here won't try to embrace this down the road, I have after all read this series before, but in this first volume the magic doesn't have many practical uses, magic is just art. Magic, or, as I should say, glamour, is just another womanly art, to be lumped in with embroidery, painting, and playing the piano. In fact glamour can enhance these already existing arts with subtle touches. Glamour is a home art, and is a skill that is recommended for a good wife to have. A way to add those special touches that make a house a home. The fact that it is womanly, finally giving a legitimate reason for women to swoon, is also why Mr. Vincent's chosen profession as Glamourist causes consternation to his family.

But Mr. Vincent understands the heights to which glamour can reach, and it's Jane's embracing of this revolutionary knowledge, to her, that calls out to the artist in me. The truth is anyone, given time, can become proficient in art or music. They can be technically wonderful, but that is all there is. Every key may be hit, every brushstroke executed to perfection, and yet there is something missing. This is what Mr. Vincent sees in Jane's art. Her studying and her interest in dissecting Vincent's work has given her technical perfection. But without the passion, without the raw emotions channeled into the art, then it can never be moving, it can never take a good artist and make them great. That passion inside you is what makes you strive, makes you see something and be inspired. Makes you always trying, learning, doing. There's a reason the greatest artists are caricatured as being passionate and emotional people, because deep down, if you don't have this, you won't make it.

The love and passion of art that the character of Mr. Vincent embodies is what pulls you into the story. It's as if Darcy and Elizabeth where dueling artists where their passion was expounded upon more, a Regency Zelda and F. Scott if you will. Jane's development from a retiring spinster to passionate artist because of the revelations gleaned from Mr. Vincent's journal literally took my breath away with it's beauty, simplicity, and passion. The scene where Jane gives way to all those bottled up emotions and creates the grove of trees in her room, it brought tears to my eyes. Taking an art form that during this time period was just an accomplishment for a young lady to possess as she is made the prefect meek wife and channeling that into a way to express all those bottled up and repressed emotions makes passionate glamour perhaps the most magical discovery of all.


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