LitStack Featured Author Review: Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

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We are thrilled to feature Mary Robinette Kowal as our March Featured Author.  A Hugo-award winner, Kowal is a novelist and professional puppeteer. Her debut Mary Kowalnovel Shades of Milk and Honey (Tor 2010) was nominated for the 2010 Nebula Award for Best Novel. In 2008 she won the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, while two of her short fiction works have been nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story: “Evil Robot Monkey” in 2009 and “For Want of a Nail” in 2011, which won the Hugo that year. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Asimov’s, and several Year’s Best anthologies, as well as in her collection Scenting the Dark and Other Stories from Subterranean Press.

We kick of our monthly feature of Kowl’s works with Sharon Browning’s review of Shades of Milk and Honey.

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Shades of Milk and HoneyMilkHoney_FNLCover
Mary Robinette Kowal
Tor Books, 2010
IBSN 978-0-7653-2556-3

If imitation is indeed the highest form of flattery, then Jane Austen must be blushing from beyond the grave.  Not only are there movies and television productions of her works cast with theatre luminaries, but there are also many books written from the viewpoint of alternate characters in her works (such as Maya Slater’s The Private Diary of Mr. Darcy;  Mister Darcy Parries Forth in Love by John D. Ayers, Mr. Darcy Presents His Bride: A Sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice by Helen Halstead, Brenda J. Webb’s Mr. Darcy’s Forbidden Love … well, you get the idea), and pseudo-serious parodies such as Seth Grahame-Smith’s highly touted Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. There is even a popular web offering spoofing two cultural icons: “Jane Austen Fight Club.

Then there are those who pen original works, imitators in the style of Jane Austen, creating in homage of this spinster author who wrote so graciously about life and love.  One of the loveliest entries in this “Janeite” genre is Mary Robinette Kowal’s  Shades of Milk and HoneyMs. Kowal takes Jane Austen’s sensibility of Restoration England and adds a fun twist:  along with embroidery, music and the painting of fine china, a young lady in Ms. Kowal’s gentry would also have at least a rudimentary knowledge of  “glamour” (the ability to “reach into the ether” to magically manipulate shape, light and color, sound and sensation, in order to create panoramas, tableaus, and other gentile decorations).

Jane Ellsworth is the central heroine in Shades of Milk and Honey, and her abilities in evoking the glamour are considerable, even though her physical attributes are far more modest.  She has a lovely yet vain younger sister, Melody, who is not content unless every available bachelor in the vicinity is besotted with her.  Never mind that this also snares any man who may have an appreciation of her older sister’s accomplishments; Jane has pretty much resigned herself to a life of spinsterhood (which doesn’t mean she doesn’t dream of being noticed by sensitive and cultured Mr. Dunkirk).

When dark and moody glamour artiste Mr. Vincent arrives on the scene, Jane’s life is thrown into turmoil.  Eager to learn some of his considerable technique, she is not only rebuffed, but the mysterious fellow appears to be piqued at her well meant interest.  Yet his talent draws her like a moth to the flame and she internalizes his rebukes with well bred angst.

The story gets further tangled when Mr. Dunkirk’s young sister Beth comes to live under his care and supervision; she is strangely skittish and withdrawn but finds comfort in a friendship with the older Jane, whose trusting nature cannot see that dark secrets lurk suspiciously in the young girl’s background.  Meanwhile, vivacious Melody finds herself drawn to a wealthy landowner’s military nephew, but is there any future in vying for his attention as her family comes from a far more modest deportment?  And will that matter when a girl is fair of face and form?  Add to this milieu even more mysterious histories, gossiping neighbors, hilarious hypochondriacs, romantic entanglements, and mixed messages that thoroughly miss the mark, and you have classic Regency lit.

Of course, we can see where the story is going.  We know exactly who has ulterior motives and who will fall prey to them, who truly is noble, and we know that everything will work out well at the end – but that’s not the point.  The point is sitting back and enjoying the pretty pictures that swirl and flow around us as the characters move toward the inevitable conclusion – and under Ms. Kowal’s considerable talent, the view is indeed pleasant and engaging.  She is as deft at creating character, atmosphere and a gracious story as her heroine Jane is at creating decor and tableau with her glamour.  They both pull lovely things out of thin air.

The drawing room already had a simple theme of palm trees and egrets designed to complement its Egyptian revival furniture.  For the better part of an hour, Jane and Melody twisted and pulled folds of glamour out of the ether.  Some of the older threads of glamour in the palm trees had become frayed, making the images lose their resolution.  In other places, Jane added more depth to the illusion by creating a breeze to ruffle the fronds of the glamour.  Though her breath came quickly and she felt light-headed with the effort of placing so many folds, the effect was well worth such a trifling strain.

Placed in pairs in the corners of the room, the trees seemed to brush the coffered ceiling, accenting its height with their graceful forms.  Between each tree, an egret posed in a pool of glamour, waiting an eternity for the copper fish hinted at below its reflection.  Simpler folds brought the warm glow of an Egyptian sunset to the room, and the subtle scent of honeysuckle kissed the breeze.

Isn’t that wonderfully evocative?  Glamour (think “magic”) plays such a large part in Jane’s world, and yet is so seamlessly integrated into the very fabric of the characters’ lives.  Glamour is not only used to enhance artwork and heighten decorations, but to create illusions of other kinds, as well.  For instance, a substantial amount can be utilized to make a shabby house appear prosperous, or a more focused application can be used as a tool to allow a tailor to fashion a ball gown exactly to a client’s satisfaction, allowing for agreement on a design before a single stitch is drawn.  Glamour can even be used cosmetically to alter a less than attractive physical attribute of a young lady who might willing to sidestep questions of ethics in order to catch the eye of an eligible and prosperous young bachelor.

As the action of the story moves to its final dramatic climax, the use of glamour plays a large part in the overwrought confrontations that bring all the conflicting storylines to a head.  This is the only time that I felt the magical notion missed the mark a bit, as the glamour made the action feel somewhat remote and detached rather than recklessly involved and immediate.  This is merely a passing quibble however,  and Ms. Kowal quickly redeems herself in the story’s glorious conclusion, and with her ability to deftly tidy up any and all loose ends (picture perfect Regency!), so that in the end the book is as lovely as the pastoral tableaus that the glamourists of the story weave from the ether of their lives and their world.

Shades of Milk and Honey may not be “typical” great literature, and it may not have the complexities and darkness that seem to be mandatory in modern literary offerings – but that’s not its aim.  What it does aim for – and achieves – is a gracefulness that can be a breath of fresh air, especially for a reader who appreciates how maintaining beauty in simplicity can take as much skill as penning monolithic epics.  Ultimately, Shades of Milk and Honey may seem like lighter fare, but that in itself is part of its graceful illusion.  It is eminently satisfying, regardless,  and well worth a few afternoons lost to such gracious fancy.

~Sharon Browning

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