Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal is an objectively dreadful book, which I absolutely loved. I devoured it in a single day. Admittedly, I had some really intense PhD reading material sitting on my desk the whole time, so perhaps I could chalk it up to procrastination. I am not sure that washes as an excuse, though, because I also prioritised this over binge-watching Madam Secretary and deep-cleaning my flat, both time-honoured procrastination techniques.
Shades of Milk and Honey has a very simple premise: what if Jane Austen were a terrible author, and then tried to write while on acid*? It’s a Regency romance/fantasy novel, the first in a series called the Glamourist Histories. The main character is a literal plain Jane, whose aptitude for glamour cannot make up for the fact that she lacks her little sister’s youth and beauty. She is approximately Anne Eliot, and her younger sister is roughly Marianne Dashwood.
In fact, it’s not just an attempt to ape Austen’s style. The plot is literally just elements of various Austen novels, mashed up and strung together with Swooning. (Everybody swoons. Men. Women. Children. People who aren’t getting enough attention. People who are getting too much attention. Many swoons). I saw elements of every completed Austen novel. Jane’s parents are obviously based on Mr and Mrs Bennett, and even some of their dialogue seem to be pretty much lifted from Pride and Prejudice. The Marianne character, Melody, sprains her ankle For The Drama not once but twice. There is a strawberry-picking party very reminiscent of Box Hill in Emma. There is an overheard conversation a la Persuasion. You catch my drift.
Unlike the Austen novels from which it has been cheerfully plundered, the writing quality and character development of this book is not quite up to scratch. It feels a bit like a caricature. Characters are lifted roughly wholesale from Austen novels, but flattened out–all their interesting edges are rubbed off, and only one or two aspects define their whole character. For example, Melody is pretty, likes men, and is critical of her sister. Held up in contrast to Marianne Dashwood, whom she is clearly meant to resemble, she seems so dull–Marianne may also be a bit of a drama queen, but she also has very strong emotions, a precisely established worldview (which shifts throughout the novel), intense loyalty to her family, great attachment to her home… etc etc. Other than Jane, almost all the characters have this two-dimensional sense to them. It wouldn’t be such an annoyance, except that it is impossible not to compare them to the characters on which they are based.
Another thing that bothered me was the romance (here follow spoilers). For most of the book, Jane is in love with a perfectly nice man named Mr Dunkirk. Huge chunks of the book are set aside for establishing their friendship, showing the reader why Mr Dunkirk is appealing, demonstrating that the affection is mutual, and generally making sure we know that he’s the love interest. However, in the last couple of chapters, Mr Dunkirk’s personality changes entirely and he charges off into the countryside holding duelling pistols. Jane follows him–still in love–and, in the resulting brawl, she suddenly switches her affections to the other prominent male character, Mr Vincent. Now, Mr Vincent had been introduced, and he and Jane had a fairly typical prickly-first-meeting scene, and another I-misunderstood-you scene later in the novel. It becomes apparent that he has feelings for Jane, but the first time I had any idea that she returned them was the very end of the book, when she decides she is powerfully in love with him and accepts his proposal. There is no foreshadowing of her feelings–they come out of nowhere and do not seem especially grounded in the story–and the book had not built up nearly enough goodwill for me to believe she suddenly couldn’t live without him.
However, I was fascinated by the magic system which Kowall proposed. The book presupposes that magic (or glamour) is rather like music and art at the time: mostly a pretty distraction that women learnt in order to make their homes beautiful, but every now and then a man comes along who is good at it–and under these circumstances, he is of course a Great and Tragic Genius. Glamour involves people pulling strands out of “the ether” and knitting or weaving them together in order to make complex illusions. These can be anything from twinkly lights to full-on forests with nymphs and babbling brooks, depending on the skill of the practitioner. That is a) a clever bit of social commentary, and b) a very interesting use of magic that I haven’t seen in any other novel. I like the idea of glamour as a domestic tool, so different to the way magic is often used in fantasy novels. I would have loved to hear more about the magic system, and it is part of what kept me reading the whole way through.
And here’s the other thing. This book was just tremendous fun. It was fast-paced and silly and ridiculous. Sometimes it’s nice to read delightful rubbish, and that is exactly what this was. If you also occasionally like reading total nonsense, and if you won’t be bothered by all the swooning, you might quite like this in spite of yourself.
*Although I have never taken acid, I have watched The Men Who Stare at Goats and also had horrible, hallucination-inducing flu, so I feel fairly qualified to make this assertion.