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.
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