Shades of Milk and Honey: Kowal's debut novel is a drawing-room romance with magic and art

Shades of Milk and Honey is the hotly anticipated debut novel from Mary Robinette Kowal, who has already made a name for herself in science fiction with a series of outstanding short stories. It's a Regency drawing-room romance, told in pitch-perfect style, with one important difference: these mannered and well-bred nobles are able to do magic. By conjuring "folds from the ether," well-brought-up men and women are able to create optical illusions -- or even breezes and smells -- though such workings are quite exhausting and too much conjuring can leave the practicioner comatose, brain-damaged or dead.

Kowal's lively romance tells the story of two grown sisters: Jane, a spinster at 28, is the ugly duckling of the family, but she makes up for her sallow skin and disharmonious features with her talents in genteel arts, from painting and pianoforte to conjuring up beautiful and vivid glamours using the ether. Her younger sister, Melody, is the family beauty, courted by men all around the Dorset countryside. Father is a warm but distant presence, while Mother is a bedridden neurasthenic hypochondriac who grasps and climbs the social ladder, hoping to ingratiate herself with the viscountess next door (and possibly marry Melody off to her nephew, a dashing captain in His Majesty's Navy).

Shades of Milk and Honey does an incredibly cunning job of working magic into this well-worn scenario, breathing fresh life into the stifling mannerist drawing-rooms of these propriety-bound gentlemen and ladies without ever losing the authentic feel of a Regency love-story.

And this is a love-story and a rather glorious one at that. The suitors, belles, and chaperones dance around each other as the gravity-wells of a good heart, artistic talent, and physical beauty send them careening around, one against another.

Kowal's first novel is a beautifully told story of being true: true to love, true to family, and true to art, even when it seems that one of them must give. It's a marvellous and promising debut, and hints at more wonders to come.

Shades of Milk and Honey

A video trailer for the book follows.


  1. I’ve had the misfortune to meet a gentleman or two who could create “breezes and smells.” ‘Twas not a matter suited for the drawing room.

    1. Whoops! That’s my fault. In the novel it’s His Majesty’s Navy, but when Cory (who is wonderful) let me proof the review before posting it, I was so overwhelmed by how kind he was that I completely missed the “Her.”

      Sorry about that!

    2. Just because the 19th century Royal Navy (after 1815) didn’t do much, doesn’t mean they didn’t exist.

  2. A video trailer for a book? Cory’s review sounded good so I gave it a watch and, well, what a waste of time.

    If a publisher wants to entice me to buy a book they should put some of it online for free, like a first couple of chapters as a taster or some shorts from the same setting, as Paolo Bacigalupi with the Windup Girl.

    The book still sounds good though…

  3. Sounds similar to Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell”, a wonderful story which has, alas, no sequel yet.

  4. Made me think, too, of Clarke’s book which, sadly, I could not love. Perhaps, Ms. Kowal has something to share in tale or style I will find more compelling. What say you Mr. Doctorow?

  5. It’s a lovely idea but as for “pitch perfect” I’d say it was imperfectly executed in the style department. And I think the editing was a little dubious, with sentences like this in what should have been a heavily vetted first chapter:

    “When Jane let her vision shift to the ether,
    so that the physical room faded from her view.”

  6. This puts me in mind of Susanna Clarke’s ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell’ – another Regency styled romp with magicians. Although I am getting the idea from the way the post was worded that this book is more romance and not so ‘guy friendly’.

    (Sorry, I’m a bit of a dinosaur and definately not a ‘new man’!)

    I like these literary retro narratives and am looking forward to the sequal to ‘Johnathan Strange…’ et al. But I may have to give ‘Shades of Milk and Honey’ a miss…My excuse being that my wife and daughter just dragged me to see the latest ‘Twilight’ movie and that’s as much simpering romantic angst I can take in one decade! ;)

  7. This book sounds great, and I plan on reading it, but the trailer seemed too long, was basically monochromatic in a non-attractive way, and the movement of the animation had a strange balance of action where the action of the character’s hands and clothing felt natural, but their heads and bodies were stilted and unnatural.
    I don’t think it’s because they were a kind of animated paper-cutout; that type of thing can be done quite well without the stilted feeling.

    It’s a strange thing when the advertisement for an interesting-looking book turns me off to the book. It’s a shame when said advertisement also features classical piano and animated silhouettes, which are things I enjoy on their own merits, and manages to make me dislike them.

  8. @Cassandra: I doubt it will make any difference, but the trailer isn’t actually animation. It’s a style of puppetry called Shadow Mask which was developed for live theater. So those are shadows of live actors, wearing cut paper masks. That’s why their expressions are static.

Comments are closed.