I scarfed Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal in one night. It was nice to just sit down and read a book, so nice, it’s hard to resist the urge to call it “sweet”. How about amiable? It probably helps that I never cared for Jane Austen, but I have enjoyed books and stories inspired (at least in part) by her, like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, or “Pride and Prometheus“. It helps that I’ve enjoyed other stories by Kowal. And it really helps that I love the form of magic in this book. “Glamour” is a way of working with illusions of light and sound, a small magic that’s largely used as a domestic art by well-born, educated young ladies. Except that professionals are men.
Jane Ellsworth is the elder sister of Melody. Jane is plain and talented in the art of glamour. Melody is pretty. We hear a few times from Melody her complaint that she can attract lots of men, but Jane is the one who can hold their attention. Nevertheless Jane has resigned herself to being the spinster aunt who will care for Melody’s family. I liked that Melody occasionally calls Jane out for being too “nice”, which seems to be picky and critic and overly concerned about what people will think.
Mr. Vincent is a professional glamourist, hired by the local lady of pretensions to create a “glamural”. When Jane looks a little too closely for his taste, teasing out the threads he is weaving together, he warns her off, saying you should experience art without picking it apart to see how it’s done. There’s plenty of other things going on in the story, family tensions, affairs of the heart and hand, masks lifted and scoundrels revealed, but the book is really about these two glamourists. I enjoyed the bits of argument that passed between Jane and Mr. Vincent, a talented amateur and a professional, discussing obliquely the best ways to create and enjoy art.
It’s also a quiet book. In their world, it simply will not do to speak plainly of what you really mean. Under all this emotional restraint, the characters must be content with barbed hints and bitter silences. If action is called for, it often seems to be flight to the bedroom where one can weep in private. Very little seems to really happen. Jane spends most of the book not allowing herself to want anything, which bogs the book down even more. When she finally does allow herself, the book gallops (literally in some passages) to the ending. Which is probably why I liked the ending so much, I immediately went back and read it again.
And the epilogue is definitely sweet.