Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
Review by Steve Thomas
The short description of this book is "Jane Austen with magic" and it's an apt one, if overly simplistic. Kowal tells the tale of Jane Ellsworth, the model of an Austen heroine, who at age 28 believes herself to be destined for a life as an old maid while her beautiful younger sister Melody has no problem attracting suitors. Jane has a quality Melody does not, however, and that is an advanced ability to create glamour, the key manifestation of magic.
At its core, glamour is like stumbling into a work of art. Creating it involves manipulating folds in the fabric of reality to produce realistic representations of other sights, sounds, and smells capable of completely immersing one in its reality. The word “hologram” didn’t exist in the 19th century, but if it did, that is precisely the word people would use (for Star Trek: the Next Generation fans, the effect is comparable to that of the Holodeck). Manipulating glamour is considered an art, much akin to high society women learning to play the piano or paint, but Jane shows an uncanny ability to do so, especially after she encounters, interacts and learns from a leading glamourist of the day, Mr. Vincent.
The story follows the basic regency romance structure, with love found, love lost, love betrayed, and ultimately, love triumphant. Kowal keeps the pace slow but consistent, and her scenic descriptions are brief but superb, especially when describing elaborate glamour. The tone is light but adroitly conveys the gamut of emotions through which the characters are run. Her characterizations, with the notable exception of Jane, tend toward caricatures but since they have matching counterparts in the regency structure, it rather adds to the atmosphere of the overall work. Though hinted at, magic shows no manifestations other than glamour, so readers not normally at ease with the fantasy genre can comfortable immerse themselves in this world where duels are still fought with pistols rather than magic wands.