Shades of Milk and Honey is essentially meant to be the novel Jane Austen would write if a magic called “Glamour” was considered an art that gently bred women should practice as part of the small touches that make a house a home. Jane Ellsworth is a plain woman, almost old enough to be entirely on the shelf, but she has a good heart and a talent for magic. Despite her fears of being a spinster forever, her talents draw the attention of several men in this book. And despite her fears of being eclipsed by her pretty sister Melody, her good sense and her talent are what carries the day, as she finds romance with someone who initially overlooked her and disparaged her talents, but who grows to appreciate what she can do and the person she is.
I don’t know what it is about this book, but it’s really grown on me with each reading — and even though it wasn’t something I loved the first time I read it, it really stuck in my head somehow. Partly because Kowal does do a compelling job of weaving magic into a fairly Austen-esque Regency novel: she’s fit it into society, thought about the implications for various trades, for war, etc. Possibly I’m also a bit of a sucker for the romance, for the way plain Jane and surly Vincent come together.
Also, it’s just really good to sink into and read all in one go.
I suspect it also helps that the later books use the setting but go on to fill it out: it’s not just magic and manners, but also political implications, and a bit more of the alternate history that would result. Having read Glamour in Glass and Without a Summer, this sets up a larger plot about progress and change; this book doesn’t contain much of it, but without it the themes couldn’t be developed so easily in the other books. If you do find Shades of Milk and Honey a little slight, but find the world interesting, the other books definitely expand on that!
But I’ve come to appreciate it for itself, as well. Possibly I was still being a snob about romance the first time I read it…