The fantasy novel you’ve always wished Jane Austen had written, Shades of Milk and Honey is exactly what we could expect from Austen if she had been a fantasy writer: Pride and Prejudice meets Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It is an intimate portrait of a woman, Jane, and her quest for love in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality.
Jane and her sister Melody vie for the attentions of eligible men, and while Jane’s skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face.
When Jane realizes that one of Melody’s suitors is set on taking advantage of her sister for the sake of her dowry, she pushes her skills to the limit of what her body can withstand in order to set things right—and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.
©2010 Mary Robinette Kowal (P)2010 Macmillan Audio
Jane Austen with magic, but don't let that put you off - this is not Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, it is its own unique story.
In addition to painting and music, a young lady is expected to have mastered the art of glamour, to entertain guests and to decorate their home. In a plot owing a lot to Sense and Sensibility, yet having enough originality to keep it interesting, Kowal has woven a nineteenth century tale of love, talent, and manners. Jane is a plain spinster of 28, talented yet convinced that she is unlikely to ever find a husband, and resigned to this. Her sister Melody is everything she isn't: pretty, untalented, headstrong, and not very bright. Melody attracts trouble like bees to honey, and it is up to Jane to sort out the trouble while staying as proper as possible - and maybe finding her own happiness.
Mary Robinette Kowal does a good job of narrating, if you are concerned (as I usually am) about an author narrating their own work, put your concerns to rest: Kowal narrates professionally as well. I would give five stars for narration, except that she does not have a native English accent, and it sounded a bit forced at times - but it was consistent and easy on the ear, and she did a good job differentiating the characters.
While there are definitely elements of various other classic regencies here (Jane Austen and all that), the idea was to blend them together, along with the magic of glamour, to create a story that is entertaining because you want to see how it plays out. Not how it turns out mind you, that is a pretty foregone conclusion, but how it plays out. What are the various turns of the story to be? How will the characters react to the foreshadowed events? It was like watching a story one is familiar with redone in a truly engrossing way. I found that the story immersed me, and I wanted to see how the author was going to pull the various strands together.
I also found that the magic of glamour, which I think is central to the story, was perfectly suited for the era. For a society so wrapped up in appearances and concerned over image this was a perfectly suited form of magic to emphasize. It also allows a different take on some of the events we know are going to happen as the story plays along. The scene involving the "tableaux vivant" (won't give more details away in a review) for example smoothly integrates glamour into a historical parlor entertainment (dressing up and posing as a sort of living statue). That was a nice bit of setting detail, but the scene itself -- how the characters perform it and so forth -- says quite a lot about the characters involved as well. Overall, I thought "glamour" was a good selection for the author to make that was also quite well executed within the story.
The performance was also very good. I was interested in that it was the author performing the narration, and I think that added to the story (it doesn't always, but it did in this case). I am interested in seeing what other work the author has narrated.
I was a little worried that I wouldn't like this book, but overall I was pleasantly surprised. I'm not a complete Austen fangirl, but I love her writing enough that I would have been entirely put off if the characters, setting, etc, had seemed fake or over the top. The characters were familiar, but this was mostly a positive and only occasionally distracting. I liked the addition of glamour to the world, which was a relief as that could have easily ruined everything if not done well.
The author's reading was great, although the accent was a little distracting occasionally. I could tell when she'd had a break and started again, but she soon settled into the voices and I would forgot about it until the next time. Overall it gets better as you go along.
I listened to this recording all in one day, with only a couple of breaks. It was exactly what I needed that day, as I pottered around the house doing odd jobs and a bit of drawing. To begin with it was a nice backdrop to my other activities, but by the end it had drawn me in so I was sitting by the computer with my stomach in a knot, wanting a good outcome for my favourite characters.
Overall the author has taken on a concept which would have been very easy to do wrong, and has delivered an entertaining read/listen. I'm looking forward to her next book in this series being released on Audible, and hope she will be reading it herself.
Narration - I have listened to Mary Robinette Kowal on the Pod Cast Writing Excuses for a good many months now and I have heard mention of this book from there. While she may not have the skill as some of the other Narrators I've heard on Audible, she is by far nowhere near as bad as many are. If you enjoy the sample reading then you will likely find the Author's Reading of her book to be a wonderful way to enjoy this tale. I could close my eyes and picture myself listening to her weaving her tale as if I was too in a drawing room listening to a young lady read a passage from a book.
Story - This IS NOT a typical Romance novel. This is a very well done Jane Austin Style Romance Novel (not the movies, the novels ??? mostly anyhow). The men are not rushing about like half tamed barbarian taking off their shirts and delivery breathless kisses, etc. The author did a masterful job with setting this tale in the Jane Austin style while keeping it fresh enough that readers/listeners of this day and age will understand what is going on.
The plot deals with the two sisters, one plain with amazing talents in weaving/creating glamour and her sister who is younger, far lovelier and far less skilled with glamour. In the story we follow the troubles and dreams of the eldest, along with some interesting side characters including two or three possible suitors. (fun)
The use of glamour, while magical is not fashioned as a truly magically thing. It is common place in the world that is created in this book. Men and Women both have the ability to use it/see it in differing degrees. Some uses are as simple as helping to keep items cool or complex in the creation of stunning works of art.
The book (if a movie) would likely gain a G rating and does not contain anything explicate. I believe there is one reference to a kiss on the head.
All and all I would highly recommend this book for those people that enjoy the more subtle and proper times of the Jane Austin period of novels with a trace of magic thrown in to add a new and interesting twist to the world.
Pride and Prejudice meets Magic. I delayed reading this after I downloaded it, I should not have. This is a fantastic book for lovers of fantasy and the Regency error. Its easy to get lost in and not want to turn off, that is its only down side. I have to force myself to shut it off to sleep. Very anxious to hear the rest of the series.
Like Susanna Clarke (Ladies of Grace Adieu), Mary Robinette manages to gently weave magic into a historical world (and its distinctive mores) in a way that makes it feel right at home. Yet while Clark's work (which I love, but your milage may vary) takes a meandering route with Dickenesque descriptions and elaborate footnotes, Shades of Milk and Honey takes a much more direct approach.
Starting as a streamlined version of Austen's Pride and Prejudice (two sisters instead of five; a less caustic father-figure; a slightly less nuanced Darcy-figure; slightly less ornate language), the novel at first combines nostalgia with some delightfully sly magical tweaks. (Why are women always fainting in Austen novels? Because the illusion-magic that culture assigned to women is just so darn exhausting, of course!) Throw in the obligatory Artist who has utter disdain for social proprieties, genteel discussions of the Nature of Art, and ominous depictions of class tensions that lead to a climactic magic-and-bullets showdown, and you have a novel that is unique, pleasant, and thoroughly readable.
But the thing that really brought this together was Kowal's narration. It's always nice to hear an author read his or her own work, but Kowal's theatrical bakground shines. Jane's vapid-yet-lovable sister Melody particularly benefits from Kowal's performance--Kowal imbues her voice with the sort of energetic ignorance more commonly associated with American socialites from the 1920's, which goes a long way to both endear her to audiences and reveal the shallow facade required of women who have "nothing to recommend them other than their beauty."
To Read or Not To Read
My thoughts on the audio:
Shades of Milk and Honey is read by the author, Mary Robinette Kowal. She has a very pleasant voice that makes this story come alive. She reads each character with such care it makes it easy to visualize each scene. The audio length is 7 hours and 33 minutes. I enjoyed each minute of it.
Shades of Milk and Honey is a delightful book. It has intrigue, hints of romance, and great characters. So many of the characters in this book reminded me of some of Jane Austen's characters. This book was like sitting down with an new friend that you feel like you have known forever. I absolutely fell in love with this book. I can't wait to read more by this author.
This is a lovely, sweet story that was a joy to listen to. There is a wonderful sense of setting, and the characters are delightful. There is something special about having the author narrate the book - you know that you are going to hear the conversations the way they were imagined. (And it helps that Kowal is a very talented narrator in her own right.)
I highly recommend this, especially to fans of Jane Austen and the lighter fantasy romances.
This is a hard book to rate - yes, it is well researched and reads like a book from the Regency period. It hasn't been updated for modern vernacular like so many Austen homages. But at the same time, the wit, spark, and yes, magic, of Austen's works are greatly missing here. So although this is a very mannered rehash of nearly every Austen work (throw all her characters into a hat, mix up their histories, and rewrite Sense and Sensibility) it never elevators into an enjoyable read. Having the author narrate the Audible version doesn't help.
Story: Mousy Jane Ellsworth (aka Margaret Dashwood) and her emotional, petulant sister (aka Marianne Dashwood), like the same somewhat boring man (aka Edward Ferrars) who has a damaged younger sister (aka Georgiana Darcy). Jane is a talented glamourist - able to create intricate illusions but her sister, who only has beauty to her name, resents Jane. When the mysterious Mr. Vincent (aka Mr. Darcy) arrives on the scene making exquisite glamours, Jane is curious but his abrupt manner puts her off. Enter a cast of characters including a scheming lieutenant (aka Wickham) and you can guess what happens.
First and foremost, I was bothered by the magic itself. What should have been amazing was instead dull - and kind of pointless, too. If making pretty pictures was the best anyone could think to do with the talent (same as embroidery or singing), then that's a sad indictment on the society. I believe someone figures out military tactical uses later - but really only because of Napoleon? In addition to the bland magic, the characters themselves were also very bland. Jane Ellsworth is a dowdy bore, her sister completely unlikable, and Vincent (Darcy) really unlikable. Where Darcy wins us over, Vincent never does, perhaps because Margaret is a wet towel lacking all of Elizabeth Bennet's wit and witticisms.
As the story progresses, nothing happens. There's a dinner. There's some magic now and then, a picnic......but nothing to keep me returning to the page. Sadly, this dullness is sandwiched in solid writing that feels like it could have been from Austen's time. But the homage falls flat when it is so literal in characterizations but without the smart character studies. Perhaps because the DNA here is most closely tied to Sense and Sensibility that it was a bit flat.
The narration was as flat, unfortunately. Not a spark to be found amongst story, characters, or reading. I had a very hard time finishing it, always deciding that a podcast would be more interesting. It just all ended up being so completely dull.
I finished this light Regency fantasy with mixed feelings. It read like a young adult novel, which I didn’t expect, and I grew weary at times with the petty sisterly jealousies and bickering, or frustrated by the simple plot. About a third of the way through, I realized the novel was exactly as advertised, a Austen-esque comedy of manners, and I stopped expecting more frequent action or plot twists. I allowed the author to draw me in with the intricacies of her characters' conversations and subtle emotions as she painted a picture of the constraints of the time, which kept people from truly understanding one another as they honored the social conventions. By the end I was well satisfied with the results, although I might have wished for a romance more deeply drawn or for a less hasty resolution to difficulties.
The novel’s greatest strength is how the author integrates a form of magic known as glamour into the Regency setting. Considered an essential domestic art, glamour allows practitioners to create illusions of light, scent and sound, used to entertain guests or bring comfort and cheer to a home. Jane, the novel’s protagonist, is unusually skilled at weaving glamour, but her plain face has relegated her to life as a wallflower. Her beautiful sister, Melody, gets all the attention and suitors. Glamour – as an art form and as a means of “dressing up” one’s ordinary life – fit well with the period’s artifice and strict societal rules. Jane begins to learn it can also be an acceptable outlet for passions she is not able to express otherwise.
I appreciated the author's narration, which I think allowed me to catch subtleties in conversations I might otherwise have missed.
"Tries too hard"
I was promised I would love this book because I love Austen and Fantasy and mashup novels. I don't entirely regret listening to this book, it passed the time and had its moments but... meh...
Only if I was given it for free unfortunately. She's not a bad writer at all, it's just, at least in this novel, she tries too hard to be Jane Austen rather than focusing on being herself. No one can do Austen but Austen. Kowal has some lovely ideas but she doesn't have the wit and charm of Austen.
The fake English accent... Oh God! It's so annoying! She's good at doing a variety of voices but the accent is all over the place. It very much sounds like what an American thinks of as British. Unfortunately, sometimes she sounds more Australian. I just couldn't get past it.
Isn't this the same thing you asked me earlier Audible?
Based on this novel, I don't see the general popularity of Mary Robinette Kowal, to be honest. I don't get why people are raving. Frankly, her "glamour" is a brilliant idea and she IS a good writer but she should have more glamour and less regency romance. As it is, this novel is a poor rip-off of Austen (down to the plot which is basically Pride & Prejudice with a touch of Persuasion and Mansfield Park)
"Regency Romance + Magic and A Lot of Fun"
This is a story obviously heavily influenced by Jane Austen, and in fact wraps up many recognisable Austen characters and situations from different books into one story. This could feel derivative in another book but here it is done well with obvious affection and humour. The author also doesn't stick so rigidly to the need for proper behaviour and so there is room for a chase scene, which is fun! (And in later books there is plenty of adventure, and even a heist.)
The author does a fantastic job of writing in a style that reflects Regency era fiction but at the same time isn't tedious or slow for a modern reader. She also narrates this audiobook and does such a fantastic job! This is the first time I've listened to an author read their own audiobook and it was wonderful to know that this is exactly how the characters are meant to sound.
The characters are really what make this series. Here we are introduced to the Elsworth family and to a variety of possible suitors. I love Jane and her family, and I especially like how her relationship with her sister is explored. It's more complex than sisterly relationships in many books and even in some Austen (which tend to oversimplify with 'good' sisters and 'bad' sisters), and this is another thing that gets even better as the series goes on. The only bad point is that I felt we didn't really get enough time with certain suitors, particularly the man who eventually succeeds, but this is another relationship that is built on wonderfully throughout the series.
I also really liked the magic in these books, which reflects the setting so perfectly. If magic did exist in Georgian England, of course it would be used in this way! It just works so well. Here magic, called glamour, is an art form that is used to show off and make oneself seem wealthier, more attractive or more cultured in front of the neighbours and visitors. It is also considered a womanly accomplishment like playing musical instruments, and so young ladies are expected to be able to work glamour to entertain at parties and gatherings. Of course, there are other potential uses too, which come out more as the series goes on. Glamour is pervasive in this world, yet also really subtle - it is everywhere and simply accepted because that's how it's always been, but the author has also really thought about how it would affect aspects of the world and history, even down to little details. I love books about magic, particularly when it is presented in new and interesting ways, and here it is done very well!
This is a lovely book and the beginning of a series that really does just get better and better. Well worth getting started on!
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