The final line of the description for this book says that "Shades of Milk and Honey is precisely the sort of tale we would expect from Jane Austen...if only she had been a fantasy writer." That description seems pretty spot-on to me, because this book is pretty much Pride and Prejudice with a little bit of light magic sprinkled in.
This is a novel of manners, focused on Jane Ellsworth, her family, and the neighbors that surround their estate. Jane is nursing a tendre for one neighbor, Mr. Dunkirk, and has befriended his sister; Jane's sister Melody has a crush on pretty much everyone; and all the other characters are involved in their own romantic entanglements of some sort, with the exception of the parents, who are just kind of nudging everything along. In the style of Austen and not more contemporary Regency romance novels, this is a sweet romance, which means there's nothing more heated than a bit of kissing--a very, very little bit of kissing, right at the end. There's mostly banter between the characters, conducted during a series of dances, visits, and picnics.
The magic in this story is of the light and fluffy kind. In Kowal's world, most people, with the proper training, can work glamour, just casting minor illusions of light and sound, even smell. The glamour is also a stable force; it can only be placed in one spot, and has to be moved manually, at great physical cost, which means that it's pretty much used to pretty up houses and such, rather than in practical applications. This aspect could have been handled better; it makes the magic seem rather superfluous, and while the descriptions of some of the glamours are quite lovely, it doesn't feel well-integrated into the world. If the characters had used magic for anything other than adding decoration to their homes, I might have been a bit more impressed. I think I was hoping for a magic system similar to that of Mercedes Lackey's Elementalist series, but I didn't find any such thing.
My other main complaint was that Mr. Vincent was a very secondary character in the novel; he and Jane only share a handful of interactions, and I never really felt that they had a relationship develop. Maybe it would have been different if we had seen some of the story from Vincent's point of view, as his feelings seemed to be the stronger of the two. Jane was pretty much interested in anyone who was interested her until the very end, which is understandable considering that she was twenty-eight and still unmarried in a time when that made you a spinster, but it made the actual romance part of this feel a little...lacking. I kept reading at a stupendous pace, thinking that the pivotal reaction between Vincent and Jane would be just around the corner, but...it never really happened, and that wasn't very satisfying.
Overall, I liked this, but I probably won't read the next one. I think others have done the historical-fantasy-romance better (like Lackey) and while this was a quaint novel, it didn't have any real substance to bring me back for the next one.
3 stars out of 5.