Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This novel just wasn’t my bag. I’ve actually had the pleasure of seeing Mary Robinette Kowal speak in Chicago and enjoyed hearing her ideas, so I was excited to pick up this novel. She says it herself – when you hear “Jane Austen with magic” you get pretty interested. Super props to another NaNoWriMo novel. Despite what I think, this book is obviously a success and I love that.
Still, for me this just fell flat. I think the danger in saying it’s like Jane Austen is that then the writing gets compared to one of the greatest writers of all time (in my opinion). That’s a pretty high bar. I felt Kowal can definitely hold her own with style and form but pieces of this novel just didn’t work for me. Some of the scenes felt forced or unimportant and, try as I might, I had such a hard time seeing the magic and the ether and really understanding what the magic was.
Probably, for me, the most frustrating part of this novel was the use of the magic. Everything in this world was 100% normal except for the magic. And what was it used for? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It was just a way to make things prettier. Whhaaaa – how disappointing. What’s the point of having magic if it doesn’t otherwise change their lives? Sure it enhances and obscures items but it didn’t mean anything. It could make items prettier and more lifelike. Man, I wanted so much more than that. I wanted this ether to matter somehow – I wanted the positives of the beautiful created to have some kind of negative (aside from exhaustion). I liked the idea but I feel like there could be so much more here.
The other piece I found challenging was how closely the storyline mirrored Jane Austen. I knew, of course, that was the intent. I have no problem with the usage of similar plots but this felt so incredibly similar to Pride and Prejudice it made it dull. I knew immediately who the end man would be. Maybe it’s because I have read all of Austen’s completed works and I know them a bit more than the average reader, but I wasn’t able to feel any element of surprise. With this, I found the main character, Jane, to be unbelievable. Why was she so vain, really? “Plain” is not a unique problem to have, or a big one. You would think the rest of the world were supermodels by how worried she is about the length of her nose. It just seemed silly based on how talented she was. If she had a cleft lip or something, then I would have understood, but I felt it was a stretch. It simply didn’t make sense that she was passed up for as long as she was with her only downfall, literally, the only one, being “plainness”.
Still, I think this novel has some positive parts. I did get through it quite quickly and, unlike Austen, it was pleasantly easy to read. It still has the elements of old language but has the satisfying tendency to have direct conversation and events, rather than implications. The idea of glamour was interesting and her characters are well developed. I think historical fiction fans can really like it but I hesitate to recommend to die-hard Austen fans such as myself.