Grace's Reviews > Shades of Milk and Honey

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
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did not like it

This was an incredibly frustrating book. The charm of Austen lies in the style of writing: light, witty, insightful, elegant, and able to skewer Regency life at a moment's notice. And while "Shades of Milk and Honey" makes sure to pack in plenty of Regency manners and swooning, the writing style is so jarring that I ended up reading passages aloud to other people, just to confirm that they really did make no damn sense.

The author reuses words at an amazing pace -- frequently the same word is repeated in back-to-back sentences, sometimes three or four times in a paragraph. Worse, sometimes the author uses words she clearly doesn't understand ("droll", for instance, is applied to a completely humourless character multiple times, and appears to have been confused with a word that means "curt" or "short" instead of "amusing"). Sometimes she uses the archaic spelling of a word ("chuse"), sometimes she uses the modern spelling. Occasionally, she'll use a word that is archaic and proceeds to misuse it ("nuncheon" does not mean "lunch"), repeatedly. When you combine these bizarre word choices with laboured sentences that are borderline-incomprehensible, the experience is more like thumping down a stretch of rapids instead of Austen's effortless babbling brook.

The plot doesn't even get started until halfway through, at which point I already hate Brat and Doormat, which might as well be the names of the central sisters. Most of the characters in this book are so glaringly based on well-known Austen characters that it seems too obvious, and I waited in vain for the twist that would make them new and exciting. No such luck -- if anything, they were stripped of all endearing qualities and hammered flat into one-dimensional puppets. The magic elements are explained in detail, but are completely incidental to the story. By the end, we've given up all pretense of being in an Austen novel and have stumbled into some sort of quasi-Gothic adventure scene. I was just so happy to have gotten to the last pages, I didn't even care anymore.

I bought the book because I love Austen (and many Austeny spin-offs), and because I thought the conceit of magic being a womanly art was pretty cool. But now I'm just wondering what the hell reviewers were thinking in recommending this read. Having done a little more digging, it looks like Kowal is the VP of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. I can't help but wonder if the circles she moves in has caused her writing to be overrated, as I have no idea why this particular book merited the sort of publicity push it's currently experiencing. I wish I hadn't read it.
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Reading Progress

August 7, 2010 – Shelved
Started Reading
August 8, 2010 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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Catrina You make really good points, Grace, but may I point out that I don't think she used the word "droll" incorrectly? "Droll" means amusing in an odd or funny way. Which means Beth thinks he's funny in an odd way. I don't know how that could be confused with "curt." I think she was just trying to portray Beth as a silly, young girl who thinks people are funny.


message 2: by Grace (last edited Aug 10, 2010 10:39AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Grace Point taken -- in context, I didn't see how the word applied, but you're right and this could be Beth giving her opinion of a behaviour.

I tend to see the word "droll" used as a description that's more knowing, something that might be odd or ridiculous but has an awareness of its own state. If you go back to the French, "drole" roots to a scamp or imp -- both of which know when they're being a little bit funny. Personally, I've tended to correlate droll with deadpan humour.

One of the lines (I think there were two references to "droll" Mr Vincent): "I said you were very talented, and he didn't say that you weren't -- which might not seem like much to you, but to one who knows him, it is clear he agreed, or he would have said otherwise. Oh, he is very droll like that. A look or a glance will be all he will allow of his thoughts, but to one who knows him, it is as if he said a volume." Vincent isn't showing a shred of humour in that passage, so I guess that leaves it to Beth's interpretation -- though I really do still feel that droll people are intentionally so.

Reading it again, I'm perfectly willing to concede that it's not actually been mistaken for "curt", but it still rubs me the wrong way grammatically. And I still can't get over writing that throws "teaze" and "shew" and "La!" around like confetti, but isn't consistent in giving "clue" the same treatment.

I didn't want to comment on your review because it's a positive one, and didn't want to influence people who might read it, but I feel that it's important to point out that I'm not ripping this book to shreds because I'm an Austen nerd who can't handle pretenders to the throne. This book has been widely marketed as "SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY is the novel Jane Austen might have written, had she lived in a world with magic". It's not the readers or the reviewers who have been saddling Kowal with that mantle, it's the author and her publishers. And maybe that would've been okay, except that Kowal then lifts Austen's characters with no subtlety.

So while I might have been okay with "A magical Regency romance" that features a bunch of new characters, I reacted very, very badly to writing that's anachronistic, a confused sense of period, magic that might as well be needlepoint, and a story that is "Marianne and Elinor Dashwood (daughters of Mr and Mrs Bennett) meet Wickham, and Mr Rochester. Predictability ensues. Also starring: tepid Lady Catherine DeBurgh and Georgiana/Lydia hybrid." I knew how the book was going to end about 50 pages in -- I was hoping it wouldn't, that there would be something else to see, but there really wasn't.

I like "Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman". I also like "Lost in Austen", which gives George Wickham an utterly surprising spin. But those both felt like they were having fun and enjoying playing with the Regency world and discovering new sides of the characters. SOMAH plods along, allowing everyone to take exactly the course Austen already wrote -- and what's the fun in that?


Christopher Many of these broader points are well-taken, and "Brat and Doormat" made me LOL.

But nuncheon actually can mean just lunch: cf. _A Glossary of Berkshire Words and Phrases_ by Barzillai Lowsley, Job Lowsley (1888), "nuncheon [nun.shun:], sb. luncheon ... The word _nuncheon_ is used in Hampshire for the meal between breakfast and dinner"; or _Words, Facts, and Phrases: A Dictionary of Curious, Quaint, & Out-of-the-way_ by Eliezer Edwards (1882), "Instead of 'luncheon,' or 'lunch,' our country people in Hampshire, as in many other parts, always use the form nuncheon."

More importantly, the book uses nuncheon (p. 81) more or less the same way that Austen uses it in _Sense and Sensibility_, v. iii, ch. 8. Willoughby's beer and beef nuncheon was the only thing he ate after 8am that day.

I don't mean to pick nits. I just found the prose so clear (including the usage of droll) that I doubted myself and began double-checking and looking for unclear sentences or phrases. I'm sure it's possible I've overlooked some.


Grace I found the same Willoughby example, but it's a quick bite he gets at a roadside inn during a hurried journey, compared to how Kowal appears to be using the word - as a catchall for any meal eaten at lunch, whether it's full-service or a picnic. I think the S&S example is the only case where Austen ever used the word "nuncheon", and I'm also wondering what "country people" means in that context; I'd guess it's talking about the peasant class, rather than landed gentry and gentlemen farmers who happen to live in the country.

It's clear that many, many people had little problem with the prose, and I really do hope they enjoyed the book. But for me, the book felt jarring and false. I've read a lot of period literature that uses words I'm not totally familiar with, but they've felt smooth and organic - this book rubbed me the wrong way, prose-wise.

Though it's a completely different genre, I'd compare my reaction to the sci-fi books "Feed" and "The Maze Runner". "Feed" has a massive amount of new, made-up lingo, but the author uses it fantastically and it feels perfectly natural - most of the time I can trace an etymological root for the made-up words, and the characters use them very naturally. "The Maze Runner" somehow misses that boat entirely and drops made-up clunky swears into contemporary speech, and it ends up sounding overused and completely stupid. For me, this was a Regency "Maze Runner" - the author just didn't have the rhythm down, and it's like watching someone try to tango when they've only ever line danced.


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