Review: OF NOBLE FAMILY (Glamourist Histories #5), by Mary Robinette Kowal
It saddens me to acknowledge that this will quite likely be the last installment in Ms. Kowal’s Glamourists series: I have thoroughly enjoyed these books, that have kept improving both in storylines and characterization, and been delighted by this world that for me has always represented a restful break whenever I was in dire need of something that was both soothing and thoughtfully entertaining. On the one hand I understand the author’s need to… close the curtain while her readers are still engaged – far better to leave them wanting than to face “story fatigue” – but on the other I know I will miss these characters and their fascinating world. Hopefully, Ms. Kowal will present us soon with some new, intriguing story….
We left Jane and Vincent after the harrowing adventures in Venice and find them ensconced in Vienna with the rest of their family, enjoying a well-earned rest and some peace. Unfortunately that peace is broken by the announcement of Vincent’s father’s death and the need to travel to Antigua, where Lord Verbury had taken residence, to put the estate’s affairs in order. Given Lord Verbury’s quite unpleasant disposition (as we saw in Without a Summer) and the past physical and psychological abuse toward Vincent, due to lack of acceptance of the latter’s skills as a glamourist, this voyage is fraught with distress and the reappearance of too many old ghosts, to the point that Vincent and Jane plan on a very quick visit and an equally speedy return to a normal life. The couple’s arrival at the estate, however, puts them in contact with many unexpected problems (including a momentous revelation) that seem to conspire against their original plans, so the two are forced to deal with a situation that becomes increasingly difficult – both on the practical and on the emotional side.
What Jane and Vincent face, besides their personal problems, is a situation quite unfamiliar to people living in England: in Antigua slavery is the accepted norm, so they find themselves dealing with a reality for which they are not prepared. Here is where Ms. Kowal’s narrative skills come to the fore, because it would have been all too easy to fall into preaching mode and denounce the evils of slavery from the “podium” offered by the story: instead she presents the facts in their stark reality, leaving any comment to the reader’s sensibilities. And to Jane and Vincent’s sensibilities, as well, even though these are far from perfect: confronted with the injustice of it all, they are of course appalled at experiencing firsthand some situations they were only intellectually aware of, and still they fall prey to some faux pas stemming not from callousness but from their own times’ mental makeup. For example, while they are horrified at the treatment received by the slaves, still they struggle to think about them as equals: when Jane starts collecting data for a comparative book on glamour and enrolls the skilled Nkiruka to help her, she’s baffled at first when the older woman expresses resentment at not receiving credit (or compensation) for her shared knowledge. A true daughter of her times, Jane needs to witness Nkiruka’s anger to realize that “nowhere in the structure of her book had she allotted space to acknowledge that half the ideas were not hers”.
After all, this is the same Jane who did not look favorably on her sister’s suitor for the simple reason that this earnest and noble-hearted young man was an Irish Catholic, and therefore the object of the era’s generalized suspicion and scorn. These lapses serve both as a commentary on the period’s mores and as a humanizing factor for our main characters: if they had simply been depicted as the “good guys” landing in the midst of injustice and striving to erase it, they would have been more caricatures than anything else, while their honest mistakes and the changes operated through trial and error, or the frustration Jane and Vincent suffer when they can’t act as freely as they would like, give this whole sub-plot a patina of reality that would have otherwise been absent. What’s more important is that while their presence manages to effect some changes, we are not shown a total upheaval of the general situation and are made aware that the road is still a long and difficult one: again, baby steps are far more credible than a giant leap.
Another important facet of this story is the almost scientific approach to glamour, the magic permeating the alternate-Regency era in which the novels are set: until now, all that we knew was that gifted individuals are able to reach into a different dimension (here called “ether”) to grasp magic and shape it into optical illusions. Here we learn that there are many different ways to reach into the ether and to work it, and that it’s not just a matter of terminology – as Jane discovers in her dealings with Nkiruka, through the difficulties in finding a common lexicon – but also of point of view and culture. The British way of working glamour suffers somehow from a more rigid mindset, a strict adherence to rules that appears to stifle a glamourist’s creativity, while the Antiguan way (derived from the various African cultures from which the slaves originate) is far more carefree and therefore appears more effective and far-reaching. I like to believe there is a sort of unspoken commentary here…
This would not be a complete review if I did not mention Jane and Vincent’s continuing journey as a married couple, of course: once more their relationship is put through a test of endurance, not through day-to-day hardships as it happened during their Venice adventure, but from Vincent’s confrontation with his old ghosts and the still-seething cauldron of emotions concerning his dealings with his father. Here we see the roots of Vincent’s brooding darkness, of the way his character was shaped by Lord Verbury’s viciousness and cruelty, and how the older man’s ruthless manipulation can be far-reaching, even beyond the confines of the grave. In the face of it all, Jane and Vincent’s bond shines in increased strength, the deep sense of trust they share and the mutual understanding that goes even beyond the need for words. All of the above is expressed without frills or overly romantic manifestations and for this reason it comes across as authentic and unaffected: here lies, in my opinion, the success of this series – the representation of a marriage that is also a partnership founded in shared work and shared emotions. Quite modern and at the same time firmly rooted in the chosen time period, with a successful, effortless blend that few can truly manage.
As I said, I will miss it all….