Shades of Milk and Honey - Did you read my mind, Kowal?

Shades of Milk and Honey - Mary Robinette Kowal

There are books we like and those we don’t.


There are books we love; carefully shelving them where they can catch our eye, remind us of the happy times we spend with them, and are there ready for us to revisit our good friends.


There are books we can’t stand: barely finishing them or labeling them Did Not Finish, sending them back to the library ASAP or if we were unfortunate enough to buy it, finding a way to get rid of it so it doesn’t sit next to a beloved book.


And then there are books I swear the author read my mind in order to create. Ones that blend things I love together that I would never have dreamed of combining yet once I’ve read it, can never see one without the other.


The above are the reasons I believe there is literally a book out there for everyone and why all reviews should be considered with the knowledge that the reviewer’s opinion is subjective. That doesn’t mean that a good review can’t warn you about a book or convince you to give on a try, but simply that a book the reviewer might discount or merely find average could be the book you’ve been searching for.


Shades of Milk and Honey is like this for me. I’ve been ‘stalking’ this book on Goodreads and Booklikes for a while and the wide variety of ratings had me worried. The fact that this book is not a Jane Austen retelling but rather an…homage might be the best word, also had me concerned. Finally, I took the plunge and picked the book up from my library.


From the first, this books was a bit of a troublemaker. I had three plus books that I HAD to read but every time I’d bury my head in one…this book kept begging for my attention. I swear it wouldn’t shut up! So…yes, I gave in and dropped into a world that I hadn’t known I missed.


Meeting me there were sisters Jane and Melody Ellsworth, one so called plain of face and one very beautiful. However, Jane is considered talented in the ladies’ arts: painting pretty watercolors, playing nice piano pieces, and extraordinarily gifted in the use of glamour. Paintings are tweaked for the light to shimmer and trees move, while music is played colors and shimmerings play around in the air with the sounds, and rooms are decorated with palm trees or other images created out of ether. The weavings and workings these women (and almost only women) do cause them to grow weak with the expended energy and quite faint.


Their father is the second son, lucky enough to have a small manor to live in, though with no son the estate is entailed away. Their mother suffers from fits of nerves, whether visited upon her by the world or herself, who can say? Melody will have an easy time in the marriage market, as her beauty is quite stunning, but Jane, who’s POV the book stays with, has little beyond her talents and has resigned herself to the fate of spinster. And yet, there is someone who’s caught her eye and she cannot help but allow a small shred of hope to grow.


But events are stirring in their small community and Jane’s world as well as her heart are about to be turned upside down.


Are the characters and their situations extremely familiar to any reader of Jane Austen? Yes.


Is this the old story of two sisters, one plain one not, jealous of each other? Yes.


Is this almost Jane Austen with magic (versus Jane Austen with Zombies)? Yes.


Is it good because/despite of all this? YES!


I found the characters real: I felt strongly for Jane, at turns liked and disliked Melody, was intrigued and died to know more about Mr. Vincent, and got involved in the various characters’ lives. The story was…comfortable. Not surprising, indeed I’d guessed several bits of it before the half way mark, but I got caught up in these people’s lives and wanted to see what happened to them after the coming events.


What I liked best turns out to be what many people disliked about the book, the way glamour was treated in the story. While most found it disappointingly vague, I found it flowing nicely through the story. All too often, authors feel the need to explain in detail every aspect of their ‘new’ shiny toy they insert into a story. So books that were supposed to be for fun and enjoyment instead sound like textbooks or cliff notes. Shades, however, allows its shimmery toy to explain itself through the uses the characters have for it throughout the text. As you read the book, you gain a better understanding of the potential and possibilities glamour has within this far-fetched historical fiction world. At times, yes, I wished to have a tutor of my own, but really the tutor arrives in the form of a book Jane is later gifted with. We still don’t have the textbook definitions, but I feel I have a better understanding of this gift and the role it plays in the book’s world then if I’d been told, not shown.


As in TV, showing is nearly always better then telling.


So, if like me, you have been eyeing this book with a combination of hope and dread, give it a try. It may not read as if it was written for you (I think Jasper Fforde’s books are written for me – that should scare you), but if you like Jane Austen or that time period, I think you will find Jane Ellsworth’s world a comfortable and interesting place to visit.


Do drop in for a spot of tea.