It is a truth universally acknowledged that a fantasy novel composed as a loving Jane Austen pastiche should inspire reviews eager to display their wit and cleverness by opening with their own Austen reference. Just about the entire fantasy-reading world had been drumming its fingers in anticipation of Mary Robinette Kowal's first novel, after she performed the rare feat of making a name for herself — ultimately racking up a Hugo nomination (for her story "Evil Robot Monkey") and a Campbell win — solely on the basis of her short fiction. Quite possibly no one was expecting a debut like this.
Released, coincidentally, at a time when a silly fad for classic "mashup" novelty books like Pride & Prejudice & Zombies and Android Karenina were exciting some niche of fandom somewhere, Shades of Milk and Honey is a heartfelt and sincere homage to a figure who's influenced perhaps more writers than Tolkien. It's never less than delightful, and is surprisingly effective in the way MaryRob's fantasy elements convey themes consistent with those of Austen herself.
Jane Austen's fame rests not only her boundless storytelling wit, but on the way she transformed the soppy romantic novels popular in her day into a vehicle for withering social commentary, skewering the formality, the propriety and manners of the English gentry and the stifling limitations they put upon women, whose chief value was marriageability. If you were a young rich girl in 1800 England, you were pretty much a prize show pony.
In Shades, MaryRob adds the ingenious fantasy concept of "glamour" magic into the mix. In a culture almost pathologically obsessed with keeping up appearances, young ladies of quality are instructed in this art, which allows them to enhance, alter, conceal, or otherwise manipulate the appearance of reality for aesthetic effect. The best glamourists can work Michelangelo-level wonders. Dining halls become enchanted forests. Even light itself can be bent, to conceal something one would prefer hidden. In this sort of culture, you can bet there's a lot of that about.
Jane Ellsworth is a plain-looking but brilliantly gifted glamourist, still unmarried at 28 and living at her family's estate in Dorchester. Her younger sister Melody is the pretty one, but she deeply envies Jane's talents. The plot of Shades is a spot-on riff on Austen's comedies of manners, where the chief motivations of the women involve scoring eligible husbands, throwing lavish dinner parties, and finding absolutely any excuse to use the old fainting couch. Jane has already resigned herself to spinsterhood — and the sheer foolishness of a social contract that would set a woman's shelf-date at well under 30 is boggling — but isn't quite sure what to make of the attentions of one Mr. Vincent, a supremely gifted glamourist hired to tutor the daughter of a family friend. He treats her with perfect manners but a cold deameanor...but is this hiding something? (An inspired moment here poses the question of whether she's the Beauty to his Beast, or vice versa.) Jane also finds reason to worry that the young rake Melody has set her sights on — Henry Livingston, a childhood playmate now grown into a dashing captain in His Majesty's service — may or may not be the man they think he is.
Fantasy fans used to epic-scale storytelling in which the fate of the world is at stake might think a book like this is too trivial a piece of fluff to be worthwhile. Drop your pride and lose that prejudice. Shades of Milk and Honey is by no means a tale strictly for Janeites or the sort of people who watch costume movies with Helena Bonham Carter. MaryRob keeps her story intimate and her cast small, which naturally allows us to feel closer to all of them. It's a brisk read. Surprises aren't exactly a big agenda item here, as you have a fairly good idea which happily-ever-afters will work out. But the novel is as lush and immersive in its best moments as the glamours Jane and Vincent create. Yeah, sure, now that MaryRob has shown she can do Austen, I'd prefer, next time out, to see her do — you know — Mary Robinette Kowal. But if her first novel is something of a glamour itself, well, it's one that's hard to resist. Its true magic is in showing us that what the spell conceals really is more beautiful than we thought.