As promised — it’s July 5, 2012, and Shiny Book Review is back. Now, on to tonight’s reviews, this time for Mary Robinette Kowal’s two alternate Regency fantasies, SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY, and GLAMOUR IN GLASS. Both novels are about Jane Ellsworth and the people around her, particularly her love interest, Mr. Vincent, and her sister, Melody, who plays a substantial role in the first book. The structure of SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY is very like that of Jane Austen’s novels (in particular, referencing PRIDE AND PREJUDICE); the main difference is with regards to the fantasy element, something called glamour that seems very like artwork and painting, except with the aether.
When SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY starts, we find out that Jane feels like she is plain despite her strong talents with glamour. Jane’s talent is like a breath of fresh air, and she’s so good with her glamour that people with sense believe she’s an artist of a certain kind — or at least that she could be, with the right training because she has much talent. But her family doesn’t have the money to send her for advanced training; instead, they mostly seem to be trying to marry both her and her much prettier, younger (yet talentless) sister, Melody, off.
In comes Mr. Ellsworth, a potential suitor; he also has a younger sister, Beth, who is attached to a military man, Captain Livingston (read: Mr. Wickham from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE). But, of course, the good Captain is not just double-timing Beth; no, that would be too easy. Instead, he’s triple-timing her with Jane’s sister and another, much wealthier woman — which causes many complexities, plot-wise, for Jane, her sister, and of course for the hapless Beth as well. (All I’ll say about Melody is this: she doesn’t find her soul mate in either novel, though according to the end of SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY, Melody will eventually find the right man and marry.)
Along the way, Jane meets Mr. Vincent, who has been properly trained in glamour and is the equivalent of a Rembrandt or possibly even a Leonardo da Vinci in how inventive and fresh his glamourized art can be. But, of course, they don’t take to one another right off (shades of Mr. Darcy in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, though the analogy only holds so far), and Vincent tends to keep putting his foot in his mouth whenever it comes to Jane . . . so whatever will happen? (Hint, hint: if you’ve read any of the Austen canon, you know full well what’s about to transpire.)
SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY is at its best when Jane and Vincent are fully on stage, mostly because their dialogue is witty and sprightly. The fantasy element of glamour helps to keep the romance going, even though I called every single plot twist early on, mostly because I’ve read my Austen thoroughly. That’s not a weakness here, as this is definitely a novel that’s all about Jane’s journey from mild-mannered “plain” Jane to a young woman who’s actualized her entire self, from realizing her love for the difficult Vincent to accepting that her talent for glamour is strong enough for her to consider herself an artist — or at least consider the possibility that she may become an artist down the road if she sticks with Vincent and follows her heart.
GLAMOUR IN GLASS opens after Jane has married Mr. Vincent. They’ve now become attached to Prince George of England, as their talents for glamour are so strong that royalty has taken an interest. However, the war with Napoleon, which had temporarily abated after Napoleon had been sent to Elba, has resumed after Napoleon’s daring escape; despite that, Jane and Vincent set off for Belgium on their honeymoon. And as you might expect, they end up plunged into intrigue from the get-go. (If I say much about the intrigue, I’ll give the plot away, so I’ll stop there.)
However, there’s a bit of a problem along the way; it seems that Jane is pregnant, which keeps her from using her talents for glamour as that’s known to harm the unborn child. Yet Vincent ends up overtaxed and in great distress; whatever will Jane do? And once she’s done it, what will she end up thinking about it?
The main difference between SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY and GLAMOUR IN GLASS is this: the latter book is much more of an action-adventure story (granted, an action-adventure story written in the way Jane Austen might have written it, with period dialect and mores intact). That keeps GLAMOUR IN GLASS moving along nicely. Of course, as this is an alternate Regency, that means Napoleon’s fate isn’t exactly the same in GLAMOUR IN GLASS as it was in our world, but I enjoyed the different spin Kowal put on it and believed that it made sense in the context of her novel.
Overall, both books read well and quickly, especially if you’ve read any Jane Austen before or have read any of the Austen pastiches (including Sarah A. Hoyt and Sofie Skapski’s excellent A TOUCH OF NIGHT). Kowal’s writing skills are superb and she understands the Regency milieu well, which is why both books were a pleasure to read.
Bottom line: if you love Jane Austen, alternate Regencies (such as the André Norton/Rosemary Edghill CAROLUS REX series), or just plain good writing, you should buy both of these books as soon as you can. Because they really are fantastic.
SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY — A.
GLAMOUR IN GLASS — A.
– reviewed by Barb