Shades of Milk and Honey
by Mary Robinette Kowal
Mmm, good book hangover. You know the one, where you've just read the last several chapters in a rush and you're not sure you were breathing properly the entire time, and then your brain is still stuck in that half-fog of pulling yourself out of the book. It's not an entirely pleasant feeling, but once it's passed, the feeling for the book is really quite glowing.
I have wanted to read Shades of Milk and Honey since I saw the Big Idea post on Scalzi's Whatever blog. And I am currently (in case you couldn't tell) on a bit of a historical kick, but I was wanting a bit of the spice that fantasy brings; this seemed like an excellent choice. I am very keen on books where magic is folded into the world seamlessly and isn't so much the means to ends as it is a mundane part of daily life.
Summarizing this book is a little bit of a challenge. There is a plot. It is more of a character study, though, than anything else; we are given the story through Jane Ellsworth's eyes, a very much on-the-shelf young woman with incredible talents for glamour and art (which is what the magic of this world is called) and a reasonable if modest dowry, and not much else -- she is very plain, not terribly graceful, and as before, she is rather a lot older than most marriageable women of her day. And Jane is very stiff and proper, too. She is good and kind to a fault, often leading to spasms of guilt when the least little bit of vanity or selfishness rears its head; I think part of Kowal's success in this book is that Jane is still a fascinating character to follow, and an extremely likeable one. A character like Jane could easily become a charicature, or an unbearable martyr. That she doesn't is a credit to her creator's skill.
It took me a chapter or two to become engaged, and though there were hints of secrets to be revealed, this was the largest indicator of the slow ramping up of the plot that would make the last several chapters nearly impossible to put down. It was a book that took me a bit by surprise, in how invested I became in Jane's life and happiness and by extension those around her. I did not expect it at the beginning, and I wouldn't even have noticed how invested I had become if I didn't start catching myself sitting at the desk at work during a slow period and wondering if, just this once, it would be okay for me to read on the job.
It's a very Austen-like read, but doesn't copy Austen slavishly; I think it's also due to Kowal's skill that the book feels of its period without feeling like a gimmick. Even some of the spellings are authentic to the time period (for example, "chuse" instead of "choose") and while at first I worried it would get old I found later that it added to the atmosphere, the feeling that Kowal clearly wanted to portray. I wouldn't have noticed, I suppose, if she'd used the modern spellings from the beginning, but I forgot about the period spellings later on and they're an added bonus to the overall sensation.
The other characters are well-rounded if occasionally a bit stereotypical (Jane's mother, particularly, reminds me of several Regency mothers I've read about) and the world itself is seamless, both familiar and beautifully strange.
My only quibble, and it is a small one, is the ending. After the intense closeness of the book, the intimate connection we have with Jane, the ending (post-climax) is very... distant. It isn't an unusual choice (I felt very much the same way about The Singing, I recall, and the Harry Potter epilogue), but it's one that always feels like a bit of a letdown. There were a couple of character arcs that felt completely unresolved, particularly one of Jane's friendships, and the swift retreat of the narrative felt a bit sudden. That said, it wasn't terribly glaring as it was in the above cases, and in no way diminishes my overall warm feeling for this story.
I really enjoyed this book. A slow start and a leisurely pace worked their way into my interest quite firmly, and as I said I discovered myself thinking of it when not reading it, in the same way I often think of some of my favourite books. I'll look forward to a re-read of this one, and I'm going to be on the lookout to purchase it for my personal library.