Oct 09 2015

Of Noble Family by Mary Robinette Kowal

Of Noble Family is the fifth book of Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist History series. The series crosses Regency romances with alternate (but not terribly alternate) history and a dash of domestic magic. The series follows Sir David Vincent and his wife Jane, accomplished glamourists; that is, practitioners of the arts of magical illusion known in the books as glamour.

While the two of them are in Vienna, Vincent receives news that his estranged father — a father who, among other things, had Vincent tried for treason in an earlier book — has died of a stroke on one of the family’s estates on Antigua, then a British colony and major naval station in the Caribbean. Reluctantly, Vincent and Jane undertake the Atlantic crossing to set the family affairs in order.

Arriving in Antigua, they find that things are not as they seem, and even the things that they, particularly Jane, had intellectually been aware of are quite different when confronted up close and in person. Vincent’s family’s estate is a sugarcane plantation, and so he and Jane are, perforce, slaveholders on a vast scale. She experiences how directly his family’s wealth is based on brutality and the exploitation of bonded labor. (There is a thematic tie here to Ancillary Sword and Sorcerer to the Crown, making visible the labor and conditions necessary to support an empire’s upper classes in the style to which they have become accustomed.)

Jane and Vincent also discover intrigues within intrigues, and that the power they supposedly hold is not as absolute as might be thought. Indeed, they are persuaded to remain on the estate even after they learn that, far from being in command of the situation, they may be in considerable danger.

With those pieces in place, the book’s action and conflicts flow naturally from the setting as it is given, the characters of Vincent and Jane as Kowal has developed them over the series, and the nature of other characters both new and returning. That is one of the pleasures of this book: the plot turns, but the wheels are seldom visible, and actions that seem puzzling at first make perfect sense once the main characters, particularly Jane, learn more about the society around them.

A great deal of this book is about power: who has it, how they use it, and on what basis it rests. Of course the overseer is a scoundrel. Given his job, what else could he be? But is the master who employs him, therefore, any less of a scoundrel? Vincent struggles with this question, as both he and Jane are revolted by the brutality that was routine on a sugarcane plantation. Vincent’s own scourging during the Napoleonic wars gives him a particular perspective on discipline doled out by the whip.

Though she addresses themes darker and more ambiguous than in earlier volumes of the series, Kowal has not left behind her touch for deft humor, as in a scene where the glamourists are being engaged to create an illusion for an upcoming ball.

Vincent’s gaze slid a little sideways to Jane. This was familiar ground for both of them. All too often, when they took a commission, the gentleman and lady of the house had differing views of what constituted an appropriate glamural for a dining room or parlour. One might want hunters and hounds, the other would perhaps favour roses in a folly. Having three opinions to contend with would be a challenge, but so petty after the trials of the last weeks as to seem almost welcome.
Jane smiled at Mrs. Whitten. “What are the motifs you are considering?”
“We have narrowed it to two.” She gestured to the drawings on the table. Some of them showed talent, while others showed merely that someone possessed a set of pastels. (p. 285)

One of the innovations of this volume is to show that the European approach to glamour is not the only one. Jane sees some of the slave women working glamour, and wins enough of their trust that they are willing to tell her some things about their practices and the traditions in which they learned. One of the first notions of which Jane is disabused is that there is a single, “African,” approach to glamour. The slave women, who become important characters in their own right, must confer and translate between languages and traditions before they can describe to Jane what they do. And though Jane works to treat the women as fellow practitioners, her assumptions of status trip her up several times in the course of the story.

Without giving away details of the surprises in store, I will say that I liked this story a great deal. I liked how the actions arose naturally from the characters and setting. I liked how the complexities of race and background were presented in the island’s small society. I liked how rounded the minor characters were. I liked that glamour neither overwhelmed the story nor lost all of its mystery to scientific inquiry. I liked that Kowal did not flinch from showing the violence inherent in the system, nor the difficulty in making either piecemeal or wholesale changes. I liked that the powerless did their best to take advantage of the powerful whenever possible. And I liked the happy ending. You didn’t doubt that there would be one, did you?

ps It turns out that Kowal is an old friend of a college friend. Sometimes the world is smaller than one might expect. She and her publisher also invited the Consortium to the book’s launch party, back in April. Alas, it was too far from any of the places that we consort; I bet it was fun!

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