Shades Of Milk And Honey (The Glamourist Histories book 1) by Mary Robinette Kowal (book review).

Mix Jane Austen’s novels with the ‘Twilight’ juggernaut and you pretty much have where this book, ‘Shades Of Milk And Honey’, is going, though of course this being the world where no self-respecting fantasy author can possibly tell their tale in a single volume, it’s merely the first instalment of a five-book story. It’s also telling that the book has a ‘reading group’ section at the end to help the target audience discuss the book in its wider context.

So, yes, if it isn’t already obvious that this is a glamorous bauble to amuse bored suburban housewives, then let’s be clear about that now. ‘Shades Of Milk And Honey’ is easy to read, stylish and includes several strong but unthreatening, female leads. The main female character, Jane Ellsworth, is a gifted magic-user, creating what she calls ‘glamours’ or illusions. But while she has powers equal, if not greater, than any of her male peers, she operates fundamentally within a male-dominated society and doesn’t seem to really want to change it beyond assuring her own safety and desires.

Similarly, the environment is based more on our modern interpretations of the English Regency period rather than the historical reality. Looking at Jane Ellsworth again, she’s born into the landed gentry and her life is one that involves stately homes, dinner parties and the promise of matrimonial alliances with her peers among the local elite. It’s telling that Ellsworth uses her innate powers to attract and engage with eligible men rather than anything more politically meaningful.

With all of this said, even if ‘Shades Of Milk And Honey’ isn’t exactly a feminist critique of Regency literature, it is at least a modern spin on the romantic novels of the period. Ellsworth is courted by a number of suitors and her playful behaviour ensures that the book remains entertaining all the way through.

Mary Robinette Kowal wisely refrains from trying to explain how magic world and instead it’s just accepted as part of this version of Regency England. Early on in the book, there’s a scene where Jane and her sister, Melody, draw out strings of magic from the ether, then weave them into semi-permanent illusions that decorate a room. The way this is done makes their magic seem entirely natural and unthreatening, rather than eerie or powerful, largely setting the tone for the rest of the book.

There’s certainly charm to this book but really, you have to like this sort of thing to begin with. The lack of any real conflict or social commentary means this book isn’t comparable to, say, ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell’ in terms of depth or meaning.

It doesn’t have the playfulness of the ‘Harry Potter’ books neither, so isn’t something you’d want to read just to enjoy a fun story. It’s very much cut from the ‘Twilight’ cloth, albeit with a female lead who exhibits slightly more independent agency, but with the same use of fantasy tropes to gussy up what is essentially a will-she, won’t-she sort of tale.

Neale Monks

August 2019

(pub: Corsair/Constable-Robinson, 2013. 262 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-4721-0249-2)

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