Shades of Milk and Honey – Mary Robinette Kowal

ShadesFrom Shades of Milk and Honey is an intimate portrait of Jane Ellsworth, a woman ahead of her time in a version of Regency England where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality. But despite the prevalence of magic in everyday life, other aspects of Dorchester’s society are not that different: Jane and her sister Melody’s lives still revolve around vying for the attentions of eligible men.

Jane resists this fate, and rightly so: while her skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face, and therefore wins the lion’s share of the attention. At the ripe old age of twenty-eight, Jane has resigned herself to being invisible forever. But when her family’s honor is threatened, she finds that she must push her skills to the limit in order to set things right–and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.

Published: July 2010

Why I Chose It: I came across this on Goodreads and was immediately interested in the comparisons between this book and Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice.

The Review:

So right away I liked this book simply for the style it was written in. It immediately invokes comparisons to Jane Austen’s work because of the Regency lifestyle and setting. Jane is polite and well-behaved, the men respectful and charismatic. I do like Austen and other classics, so it was nice to get to read something written in a similar style, but have that extra layer of magic and fantasy. I was a little taken aback, however, by how closely this story followed that of Pride and Prejudice by Austen. During the first part of Shades it’s alarmingly similar, to the point that I knew what would happen at the end of the book simply because I was able to identify all of Austen’s characters within Kowal’s narrative.

While obviously there were some major differences between the two, I was really distracted by the parallels. I kept thinking about Austen’s work to compare the two stories, and I found myself torn in two different directions. Half of me really wished Kowal had been more creative with her own story and made her narrative more distinct from Austen’s. And yet the other half of me wanted her story to be even more similar to Austen’s, so that they could be easily compared and so Kowal’s minute changes could be admired for their subtlety and craft. Yet I found Kowal’s story sat somewhere in between these two ideals, and there was just something in the narrative that didn’t quite work for me.

The one major difference is obviously that there is magic in this story, and that ended up being the factor that won me over. The “glamour” exists in the ether, just beyond normal sight. Young women train to use fold of glamour to create almost anything, such as elaborate scenery, to contain loops of music, create scents in the room, etc. Kowal’s descriptions of the different effects created by glamour were absolutely stunning. These parts of the book were absolutely beautiful and I couldn’t help but fall in love with the glamour. It’s graceful and elegant and wonderful, and it completely enchanted me.

I also really appreciated how the skill of glamour was worked into the society. Similar to stitching, piano playing, or singing, glamour is a skill that young ladies learn to use, and are then able to use that skill while entertaining guests. When I first tried to envision an Austen book with magic in it I didn’t like the idea, and yet Kowal does it so flawlessly that it seems like it belongs there. It was an entirely natural part of the society, and I could not appreciate more how well the two elements were combined within the story.

I do wish that I could put aside the comparisons to Austen’s work entirely. Based on Kowal’s story alone, I really enjoyed the book. I loved the glamour, the society, and most of the characters. Unfortunately her story too closely reflects Austen’s to be able to separate the two entirely, and I felt that comparisons had to be made. Even though I struggled between the two books, people who have not read Austen shouldn’t have too much trouble.  I still really like this book, and the touch of fantasy to a Regency novel is something I really enjoyed. I would definitely recommend this if you like reading Regency novels, romances, or light fantasy.

Rating: 4 / 5


“His older daughter, Jane, made up for her deficit of beauty with rare taste and talent in the womanly arts. Her skill with glamour, music, and painting was surpassed by none in their neighbourhood and together lent their home the appearance of wealth far beyond their means.” p 8

“Jane let her vision shift to the ether, so that the physical room faded from her view. The lingering remnants of glamour were far too bulky for the effect that Melody had been trying to attain. Jane took the folds between her fingers and thinned them to a gossamer weight which she could barely feel. When she stretched them out, they spanned the corner in a fine web. Once she anchored the folds to one corner, the glamour settled in to the room, vanishing from view.” p 11

“A combination of glamour and paint contrived to turn the hall into a nymph’s grove. Though yet incomplete, the illusion teazed the spectators with scents of wildflowers and the spicy fragrance of ferns. Just out of sight, a brook babbled. Jane looked for the folds which evoked it, and gasped with wonder at their intricacy. Her perception of the physical room faded as she traced each fold in an effort to understand it.” p 38

2 comments on “Shades of Milk and Honey – Mary Robinette Kowal

  1. […] familiar, and I soon realized that the book was in fact a sequel to a novel I read a long time ago, Shades of Milk and Honey. I remembered loving the book, and so I took the sequel home with me to […]

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