Delight is something I probably shouldn’t inquire too deeply about, so I will simply say that Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal was a delight. I knew that Regency romances were a Thing, and I knew that not having read Jane Austen is a gap in my education, and so I am sure that there are conventions of the genre that Kowal is playing around with that went past me, but for all of my not really being the target audience, I enjoyed the heck out of the book.
Jane is the plain daughter of the Honourable Charles Ellsworth, a well-to-do landowner in the neighbourhood of Dorchester during the English Regency. She is versed in the womanly arts, particularly music and glamour, a kind of magic-making practised by pulling upon strands within the ether; mostly this work is done individually, but sometimes it can be done collectively. It is largely an art of illusion, sometimes stationary, sometimes accompanying music, and sometimes being more like a short movie.
The Honourable Charles’ other daughter, Melody, has “a face made for fortune” and far better marriage prospects, as a maid of 18, several years younger than Jane, who is nearly reconciled to becoming a spinster. Events, of course, intercede.
There are wealthy and noble neighbours, the FitzCamerons; there is a captain in the Royal Navy, one Henry Livingston, with whom the sisters played when they were children, now grown handsome and dashing in HM service; there is a Mr Dunkirk, in whom both sisters appear to have an interest; there is his sister, Miss Beth Dunkirk, who becomes a friend, but has a mysterious and likely tragic history; there is a nearly invalid mother, with convenient fainting spells; there is a Mr Vincent, itinerant and slightly disreputable glamourist retained by the FitzCamerons; there are also various servants, who do not rate.
Everyone, of course, has a secret, and some characters have several.
The FitzCamerons give a ball; everything is not as it seems. Intentions are hidden, then misconstrued, then deliberately played false. Lives are callously put in danger, but saved in the nick of time. Unfortunately, that puts still more in danger and the ending arrives in a rush, with thudding heartbeats and the likelihood of a deadly duel, first hindered and then abetted by the magic of glamour.
Is there a happy ending? Well of course there is, but not for everyone, not even some of the more sympathetic characters.
Kowal has a deft touch with the characters, none of whom is without a flaw, and the misunderstandings that arise from social convention are key to several points in the plot. The pace is one of the particular pleasures of the novel, leisurely as a country walk at first, then quick as a duellist’s draw at the height of the action. There are pairings and some droll commentary to analyze in things such as the chapter titles, but that would get in the way of the delight. And for now, I am happy to be charmed, and delighted, and just come along for the ride.