With the rise in popularity of books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, as well as the growth of the Steampunk genre, there has been a renewed interest in the classical style of writing. While Jane Austen hardly qualifies as fantasy, genre writers tend to be on the leading edge of trends in literature. Mary Robinette Kowal, with Shades of Milk and Honey, has masterfully infused the gentle Regency romance with just a touch of magic to add to its beauty.
Along with other womanly arts, any woman of Quality also learns to manipulate the strands of ether that make up the universe. Rather like working a personal glamour, these can be used to affect the senses. On can project the warm glow of sunlight to a dark corner, add tinkling strains of harpsichord to a parlor, or perhaps hide an unfortunate set of teeth. Of course, different women have different aptitudes for this skill, but most agree that a house isn't a home without these small comforts.
This is the one area in which Jane truly excels. Creeping ever closer to being a spinster, Jane's looks have never been her strong point. With overly strong features, Plain Jane is a particularly apt expression. So it's only natural that she is overshadowed by her beautiful younger sister Melody. Both are still on the look-out for possible suitors, and while they don't stand to inherit terribly much, their father has put aside enough for a decent dowry for each of them.
But one fateful summer, things begin to change. Men can drive a wedge between even the closest of sisters, and just because one is of marriageable age doesn't mean that she has the wisdom to see men for what they are. As the situation becomes more and more dangerous for the girls, help comes from the most unexpected of sources. And sometimes the most affable and social have even more to hide than the quiet ones.
Shades of Milk and Honey is a solid period piece set in Regency England. The only fantasy element, the 'glamour' that mostly women work, simply compliments the gentle story of the Ellsworth girls and the small social dramas of the area. Details from the speech to the social mores to the styles of dress are meticulously researched and plotted so that the reader often forgets that she is reading a modern piece. Kowal even goes so far as to have created a 'Jane Austen Dictionary' in her world processing program that flags any word that does not appear in a Jane Austen novel, so she can research it and see if the word or concept existed at the time. It's this attention to detail that raises Shades of Milk and Honey far above the traditional period gimmick and makes it an excellent debut novel.
In all, this is a very quiet book. Even when the story quickens and some of the plots come to light, there is still the dance of social niceties to be adhered to. Fantasy fans who want to see the women throw off the constraints of society and charge into battle will be sorely disappointed.
The only problem that I foresee is the book not finding many of the readers that would most appreciate it. While in some ways a fantasy book, it is much slower paced than most on the shelves. While a period piece, there is nary a dirigible nor vampire in sight. In fact, many readers of mainstream fiction would quite enjoy the story, but may never know it exists simply because of the section of the bookstore or library in which it resides. Perhaps the best way for this book to gain notice among people who wouldn't otherwise find it is word-of-mouth. So if you end up enjoying this book, make sure that those who are less adventurous in their reading find this gem.
Highs: Watching the speed at which Jane can analyze and replicate some of Mr. Vincent's most elaborate glamour tricks, and his consternation at it, is fun to watch.
Lows: It'll be hard to find the people patient enough to enjoy this style of writing among those who typically scan the fantasy shelves, and those expecting High Fantasy of Urban Fantasy action will be sorely disappointed.
Verdict: A delightful piece of period fiction with well-developed characters and prose meant to be savored.
Further Reading: Glamour in Glass, A Discovery of Witches