Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
2.5 stars, really.
Plain-looking Jane Ellsworth has resigned herself to being a spinster. Well, almost resigned. She plans to help her beautiful younger sister marry well so that she might live in her sister's household someday after their father dies. Melody is eighteen and has let her beauty carry her through life, never working to cultivate lady-like accomplishments such as those in which her elder sister excels. Friction begins to creep in to their relationship when both women develop crushes on the same man, and their mutual jealousy creates a painful barrier between the sisters. When Jane attracts the attention of not one but two eligible gentlemen in the neighborhood, Melody seeks solace in the arms of a man who is neither available nor honorable. Jane must use all her skills to keep the situation from exploding into a full-blown disaster.
I received a copy of this book from a good friend, and I was really excited to read it. There are a number of very positive reviews. I think, though, that it would have been better had I not been under the impression the author was "Austenesque." Yes, the setting is roughly like that of Jane Austen's novels, magic notwithstanding, but the comparison of the two authors isn't all that apt. Kowal has none of Austen's biting wit nor social satire. The characters felt like she'd taken Austen's originals, put them in a blender, and came out with an odd mish-mash of personalities and flaws. I kept getting flashes of scenes or situations, and then was confused or reminded to reign in my imagination when what actually happened was different.
Melody really was just a pretty face hiding an immature, selfish temperament. Captain Livingston is Wickham, Frank Churchill, and Willoughby all rolled into one--how did no one predict his bad behavior? The neighbor's 16-year-old sister whom Jane befriends (and whose name escapes me at the moment, as I left the book at home) starts out sweet and reminiscent of Georgiana Darcy but then turns into an irrational shrew by the end. Likewise, the girl's older brother begins as a mixture of Mr. Darcy, Col. Fitzwilliam, and Mr. Knightley and then devolves into impetuous behavior that feels inconsistent with his character. I'm all for character development...but this didn't come across as creating depth.
Since I read for character as well as story, it didn't help matters that I found the budding relationships to be...thin? Weak? I wanted there to be more of a foundation for Jane to fall in love--with either of her suitors, both of whom seemed interested in (or hostile towards!) her merely for her skills at "glamour" (i.e. magical illusions).
I am still debating whether to read the next two books in this series. There is potential for a lovely historical fantasy series, if only Kowal can break free of Austen's shadow and just focus on doing her own thing.
For readers' advisors: setting and character doorways. It's a pretty slow-moving story until the very end. No sex, and I can't recall any real swearing.
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