by Molly Templeton
Portland author Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey (Tor, $24.99) takes place somewhere between Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Jane Austen. In Regency England — or a place very like it — Jane Ellsworth, at the ripe old age of 28, struggles with propriety; her headstrong younger sister, Melody; her dramatic mother; her emotional young friend Beth; and a handful of handsome and worthy young men who, Jane is certain, are interested Beth or Melody, not Jane, who laments her long nose and flat brown hair. But there’s more to being a charming young woman than having the newest gown, the nicest manners and a talent for embroidery; a knack for glamour, for manipulating folds of ether into beautiful set pieces or to enhance a painting, is also part of a woman’s appeal. Grounded, observant Jane is a talented glamourist; Melody, beautiful and impulsive, has no talent to speak of. Kowal has a good time with the tropes and tweaks of this sort of story, making both sisters sympathetic and tossing a few obstacles into the way, but Shades sparkles to particular life when its characters are working, thinking about or discussing glamour — the way it works, the relevance of passion, the power of a muse. Kowal never gets too specific, preferring to leave some of the magic behind the curtain, but glamour comes across like the manifestation of imagination, whether in the form of a scene from a story (perhaps Beauty and the Beast), a disguise for a drawing room or just the suggestion of roses on the air. The question of who ends up with whom is never much in doubt, but Kowal satisfyingly twists the traditional ending so that art and love share space in her heroine’s heart and life. Mary Robinette Kowal reads at 5 pm Tuesday, Aug. 24, at Tsunami Books.