I’d been considering reading this book for… a few years now, but for one reason or another I only just purchased it yesterday. And decided to read a little bit before bed. And stayed up for three hours to read the whole thing.
Well, as that most likely indicates, I enjoyed the book quite a lot. The book itself is a Regency romance style book, with the well-woven addition of the magical art of glamour giving it a fantastic boost above others of similar genres
Mary Robinette Kowal, the author, has certainly made no secret of Jane Austen’s influence on her work, and comparisons to Pride & Prejudice abound. In fact, when I started the book and it presented me with the primary characters: elder Jane, younger Melody, their father – whose estate was entailed away to a nephew – and their mother – who was once beautiful but now was often an invalid and weak of nerves – were so similar to P&P that I was, I admit, slightly unnerved. Was this going to be just a thinly veiled copy – one step away from Pride & Prejudice and Zombies?
No, no it was not. In fact, for a fan of Jane Austen – which I only make small claims to – it’s rich with references. The family situation is clearly from the Bennets, but Jane and Melody themselves are more like Elinor and Marianne (the younger’s full name is used once and is Melody Anne, even) from Sense & Sensibility. Young Miss Dunkirk is reminiscent of Georgiana Darcy; the Dunkirk’s residence of Robinsford Abbey and Miss Dunkirk’s fondness for Gothic romances are perfectly referential of Northanger Abbey; Lady FitzCameron is like Lady Catherine – with a twist. I am sure there are references I missed to others of Austen’s work which I haven’t read, and possibly some of the ones I have. (Sadly, I saw no similarities to Emma, it being my favorite of Austen’s novels.)
And then there is the glamour. As anyone familiar with traditional faerie magic, you immediately recognize the word as referring to the art of illusion. In MRK’s England, it is much the same – though from the way it’s described and the things it’s used for make it clear that glamour itself is not so much illusion as the subtle bending of reality. The explanation of how it works is light-handed but sufficient to understand the world and the use of glamour, and the integration of it into the world of early 19th century England is, quite frankly, perfect. The art seems to be one that women are best skilled at, so it is generally consigned to interior decoration and party entertainment – but the one man who is skilled at it in the story does it as his Work, and it is suggested that he should use his skills in service of the country, via the military or navy or some such. Huzzah, gender stereotypes!!
But no, I don’t mean that sardonically. There’s not much point in writing in Regency England if you aren’t going to use the social fabric of the time, because that’s largely what the era is. Social fabric.
There were only two things I didn’t really enjoy about the book, and the first one I can’t really fault MRK for as it is very common for the genre. Specifically, I prefer a less… precipitous “falling in love with the man” for my heroines. Seeing it develop over the course of the chapter, rather than abruptly developing feelings almost behind the scenes during the dramatic, rather high-action climax, would have been more satisfying, I think.
And for the second point, there are a few epilogue paragraphs at the end – though they aren’t separated into an epilogue – which felt very tacked-on. I believe they were added for closure before the book was slated to be the first in a series, but they just feel… well, tacked-on. I might have objected less if they were in a discrete Epilogue chapter, but I don’t think so.
MRK was tweeting yesterday some amusing quotes from one star reviews her book has gotten (yes, this is what precipitated my purchasing the book) and one of the comments in particular stuck in my mind: it complained that the title, Shades of Milk and Honey, made no sense and had nothing to do with the book.
Now, I mention this because I pondered it last night after finishing it (while failing to fall asleep) – it does seem an odd name, doesn’t it? But then I got it. It’s a reference to once particular conversation in the book, where the Promised Land is mentioned in a conversation – and once you’ve read the book and appreciate the nature and significance of that conversation, the title immediately clicks into place.
It is, in fact, a subtle and brilliant title.