Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey (Glamourist Histories, #1)Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a book I enjoyed but grudgingly and against my better judgment. It seemed like the product of some serious fangirling of Jane Austen and a cute idea to weave in a fantastical element to an Austenesque landscape. There’s nothing wrong with that! Unfortunately, while I appreciated and even somewhat enjoyed the attempt I think overall it was pretty weakly done.

Synopsis: Jane Ellsworth lives quietly as a spinster with her beautiful younger sister Melody, silly Mother and affectionate father in Regency era England. She is very plain in appearance however, as Austen would say, she is a very accomplished young lady; adept with music, painting and conjuring glamours. In this mirror of the real Regency England, people can perform bits of magic and it is especially prized in ladies who use it to accessorize and make their homes more comfortable. As the story opens, Jane is secretly pining after the Ellsworth’s neighbor, Mr. Dunkirk, but she has no hope of him as she competing for his affections with her lively and attractive younger sister Melody. There’s a lot of misunderstanding and jealousy all around. Throw into this mix two additional young people, new to the neighborhood - Mr. Dunkirk’s younger sister Beth whom Jane becomes quite friendly with and a dashing Naval officer Captain Livingston, nephew to the local Viscountess who sets everyone’s hearts aflutter – and you have a stew of romantic drama. There’s also the enigmatic Mr. Vincent, a renowned glamourist who is hired by the Viscountess to create a one of a kind glamural in her home. He doesn’t seem to like Jane much and his opinion of her talent with glamour is ambiguous.

It is actually quite hard to summarize the plot of the novel as it follows the Austen model of focusing primarily on the everyday things that happen between people and no grand plot.

Things I didn’t like:
1)The acknowledgements say that the writing of the book was inspired by Austen but it comes a little too close to “ripping off” Austen. Almost all the characters have an EASILY recognized counterpart in Austen. Jane is Elinor Dashwood at least with her sense of decorum and propriety and repressed emotions but she shows a great deal less sense then Elinor. Melody Ellsworth is a combination of all the worst parts of Marianne Dashwood and Lydia Bennet – and yes she is, as can be imagined, EXTREMELY annoying and difficult to sympathize with. Beth Dunkirk is a repeat of Marianne Dashwood and perhaps a dash of Georgiana Darcy. Captain Livingston is a combination Willoughby and Frank Churchhill. Mrs. Ellsworth is Mrs. Bennett. You get the picture. And if you are a reader of Austen you will have no problem discerning where the story is leading.
2)The language is forced, like the author was trying too hard to mimic Austen and not quite getting it right.
3)The ending is rushed - no resolution with the Dunkirks, Jane’s romance is wrapped up with a rather false note of intimacy and affection between Jane and her chosen.
4)Missed opportunity with Jane and Melody’s relationship which could have been rich and interesting. One sister jealous of the other’s beauty the other jealous of the one’s copious talents. Instead it was just annoying.
5) With all the Austenesque stuff going on here the book was not funny - it didn't have the twinkling levity or the depth for that matter of Austen.

Things I liked:
1)I liked the idea of glamour and thought the idea was developed well. The discussions of art and the need of passion and emotion to create great art. Technique is less important than vision and feeling.
2)That Jane’s plainness is never backed away from. She’s not an ugly duckling who blossoms into a swan. She’s just Jane.

However, despite the fact that my dislike list is longer than my like list, I did enjoy it and am curious enough to move on to book 2 of the series. Interestingly, the last few rushed pages of this book make it clear that it was likely not intended to be the first in a series, so it will be interesting to see how well it morphs. 2.5 stars out of 5.

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