Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal, offers up a simple promise: Jane Austen with magic. Just as it sounds, Shades is a charming and intimate fantasy in which the characters play center stage and the magic drapes around them to create a rich and captivating world.
Set during the regency in the English countryside, Shades of Milk and Honey concerns itself with the life of Jane Ellsworth, her family, and their genteel neighbors. At twenty-eight, Jane, whose skill with glamour (magic) and the arts are the envy of her sister, Melody, has all but resigned herself to the life of an old maid. Then, when a two new arrivals come to town, romance pulls Jane and her sister into its whirling dance.
Jane and her sister feel like real siblings, with all the love and tension and occasional resentment that that entails. Indeed, all of the characters offer an impressive degree of vibrancy and life, even if Mrs. Ellsworth is somewhat flat. Many of of the characters feel familiar as well, even to someone (such as myself) only passingly acquainted with Austen’s work. Mr. Vincent, for example, bears a striking similarity to Mr. Darcy (Pride and Prejudice) in both his mannerisms and personality, and Mrs. Ellsworth is a dead ringer for Mrs. Bennett (also pride and Prejudice). Indeed, the Ellsworths as a whole are strongly reminiscent of the Bennets.
At its heart, Shades is a fairly standard, but well crafted and enjoyable romance novel. As a whole, however, it feels like something more. The magic and the setting weave together believably, and the rich prose so perfectly matches the period that at times I could almost imagine it had been written by Austen herself. The book can at times feel aimless since Jane’s goals and ambitions are somewhat vague, and her pursuit of them almost nonexistent, but the story moves with sufficient swiftness that the reader is never bored.