August 9th, 2010


Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Review copy provided by Tor.

Lately, there have been a great many things marketed as "like Jane Austen with ____." "Like Jane Austen with vampires" or "like Jane Austen with magic" or "like Jane Austen with zombies" or a dozen other variants. To my eye, very few of these are very much like Jane Austen at all. Most of them are set in the same period as Austen was writing, most in the same country, and that is about the sum of the similarities. Many of them have different authorial inspiration completely--Georgette Heyer, in several cases, or actual 19th century authors who just don't happen to be Jane Austen--and Austen is just being used as a marketing hook.

Mary Robinette Kowal's Shades of Milk and Honey is in a different class completely. The concerns of Austen--spinsterhood, money, familial foolishness--all show up here, handled deftly and lightly. The other thing that's handled deftly is the component of the fantastic. Austen's Britain would have been a very different place if it had not only had magic but a particularly flashy kind of magic among the women of the upper classes. Kowal takes that in a different direction completely: glamour is to be genteel, ladylike. If it's too heavy-handed, one is likely to be sniffed at as tasteless, not hauled away and imprisoned. I'm so tired of the "magic is punishable by death!!111!!!!" trope that I am relieved to see an example where the social force of good and bad taste is recognized instead.

The scope of story is similar to Austen here: fantasy readers who are used to a reveal of epic or at least national proportions at the end of a book may be startled to find that this is a story about the people it's about, not about their effects on Ragnarok. And yet I feel that it did well enough being about the people it's about that they need neither avert nor cause Ragnarok for it to be a fun and effective read.