Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey has been glibly described as “Jane Austen with Magic”. This shortchanges the depth of worldbuilding and characterization to be found in Kowal’s work. It captures a 19th century very much like our own with a depth that is recognizable to any author writing in or of the period.
Jane Ellsworth is the oldest of two daughters of the Ellsworth family. Her younger sister Melody provides much of the conflict of the novel, as the two struggle and debate over the question of marriage. The conventions of this society are detailed well–Jane’s advanced age making her more and more likely to be a spinster, Melody’s beauty seen as an effective but skin-deep method of catching a husband. Glamour, the magic system of the alternate England in this world, is mostly a womanly art, and the text makes it clear that this talent is part of the package of what makes a woman a good potential wife. The reader doesn’t need to know about how women were treated in 19th century England, the text does the work for us in building the societal structures.
There is very little mention of the wider world. The focus is on Jane and her fears, desires, strengths and weaknesses. This grounds the reader in Kowal’s world.It is a very interior-life-of-character novel that way. Even such subtle touches as how characters address each other are carefully introduced by the author. An alert reader will note that Jane and Melody are almost always “Miss Ellsworth” to characters outside their family. And when that naming convention is broken, the author highlights it as a way of telling us a convention is being flouted, and that it is no light act.
Class and culture get a lot of play and development in Shades of Milk and Honey. Jane’s family is holding onto their middle class existence by great effort. It is made clear that the Ellsworths are considered the “country cousins” by much of the other families in their small rural community. This contrast is best seen in the nearby FitzCameron family, the wealthiest family to be found in the neighborhood, and minor nobility to boot. While having a base knowledge of the English class system certainly is helpful, knowing that Lady FitzCameron is nobility and thus is a higher social class than her neighbors, especially the Ellsworths, is about all you need.
The characters rarely venture beyond the Ellsworth home of Long Parkmead and the FitzCameron estate of Bambury Manor. Both homes and the areas around, from the Long Parkmead labyrinth to the glamour mural in Bambury Manor created by the Glamourist Mr. Vincent, are lovingly and winningly described. Given that we spend so much time in a relatively few locations, the care and depth these locations are given is made clear. We only get a few glimpses and references to the world outside, and this allows the reader to consider it as a microcosm, mostly divorced from the outside world and complete unto itself. This leads to a “landscape in miniature” worldbuilding. Instead of a giant world-straddling oak, Kowal crafts a beautifully cared for bonzai.
The flavor of Jane Austen is prominent throughout the novel. If you have read any of those stories, you will draw parallels here. Shades of Milk and Honey doesn’t borrow any specific plots or characters, yet Austen’s influence is a strong one and difficult to ignore. I think readers utterly unfamiliar with Austen will enjoy reading about a unique fantasy world, since these archetypes are far more universal.
Shades of Milk and Honey is a book that can be successfully read as a secondary world fantasy with just a touch of cognitive dissonance. While its certainly not the standard way to read the book, what it does mean for readers is that you can approach this book from a neutral perspective, and enjoy it. Readers especially interested in character-focused and character-grounded fantasy might and can enjoy the book from this perspective.