The title: Shades of Milk and Honey
The author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Publication: Tor, 2010
Got it from: DC, Xmas 2010
Jane Ellsworth is a quiet Regency woman who, at 28, has little prospects of marrying. Her plainness has left her "on the shelf," even though she is skilled at a highly valuable accomplishment: manipulating glamour. In Jane's world, glamour is used in everyday life to create illusions of beauty and works of art. The trouble is that it takes a physical toll on the person manipulating it if used for too long. Even though some women of Jane's acquaintance use glamour to enhance their appearance, Jane herself does not, despite being overlooked for her younger, more beautiful sister Melody. Melody is herself jealous of Jane's talents because they win the affections of a neighbour whom both sisters admire.
This book is a gentle romance, more along the lines of a traditional Regency of manners. The magical elements of the book don't overwhelm the story and are easy to picture: for instance, a commissioned "glamural" brings to mind the moving pictures of Harry Potter, but with a more sensory component. Jane and Melody sometimes appear to have been lifted straight out of Sense and Sensibility. Plain, rational Jane is clearly Eleanor; while flighty, beautiful and romantic Melody is a perfect Marianne Dashwood. But as in Jane Austen's stories, here characters are not always what they seem. The brooding and seemingly hostile Mr. Vincent reveals a softer side through his magnificent glamour-based creations, while the charming Captain Livingston will be recognizable to readers familiar with the Wickham and Willoughby type. The questions of who ends up with whom, and who is really in love, do not become fully realized until the end.
This is altogether an engaging story, filled with countless literary allusions, including the stories of Daphne and Apollo and Beauty and the Beast, as well as more subtle homages to other 19th century works. A sequel due out this year will hopefully continue the story of secondary characters left dangling at the end of the first.