Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Book Review: Of Noble Family, by Mary Robinette Kowal

With Of Noble Family, Mary Robinette Kowal closes out her Glaourist Histories series of novels. These five books took us from a Jane Austen inspired romance through the Napoleanic wars, a visit to London for exploration of early industrial revolution and social upheaval, a stop in Venice for a complicated caper, and now to Antigua do deal with both family and the realities of the slave trade. While the opening volume, Shades of Milk and Honey, was a regency romance dealing with the relationships and marriage prospects of upper-class families, the series did a very credible job of speaking to the concerns of the common folk even while keeping its focus on wealthy and increasingly powerful characters.

This is a challenging book to review without giving spoilers, but we'll try. For those who've not yet picked up this series, it deals with an alternate world  in which exists a sort of magic called glamour. Glamuorists manipulate the ether (which, in this world, is a real thing) primarily to create visual and auditory illusions. We've even seen glamourists working with heat and cold (perhaps by extending their work into the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum? This is never clear, but doesn't really matter) at significant cost to their health. It creates am entire layers to culture, economy, and even military tactics. Our viewpoint character, Lady Jane Vincent, and her husband Sir David Vincent are two of the most accomplished in this art. 

We pick up their story after a safe return to London after the misadventures in Venice, chronicled in Valor and Vanity. This respite is short-lived as we receive word that Sir David's estranged father Lord Verbury has died of a stroke in his estate in Antigua, to which he fled to avoid trial for treason. Family has been an issue for Vincent throughout the series, and a return to the estate of his father - a cruel and demanding man whose name Vincent no longer carries - is not to be taken lightly. Through the ensuing pages we learn of Lord Verbury's legacy, meet both slaves and fellow slave-holders, and explore the fraught relationships in a deeply disfunctional family. Lord Verbury casts a deep shadow  throughout the book as a return to the family estate brings out some of the worst in Vincent.

One of my favorite things about this particular volume is the way Kowal's characters maintain recognizable, believable personalities even as circumstances completely alter their behavior. We see this in Vincent's increasingly short and dangerous temper and again with a slave woman whose speech patterns are completely different with field hands (with whom she speaks in a nearly opaque dialect) to perfectly standard English when speaking with the island's black doctor.

There's much about this novel which I love. One passage which stayed with me after I set it down is a bit of dialog from Frank, not only a slave of Lord Verbury's, but also the man's oldest son in which he speaks of the old man's surprising generosity. 

Perhaps one needs to have an awful person or two in ones family, but to me it's perfectly clear - and more real - to have the manipulative, cruel patriarch also be sometimes generous, sometimes engaging and - if one doesn't look at the big picture - actually likeable in the moment. It explains the influence Verbury had in life, as well as the complications in his relationship with Vincent.

If the novel has a flaw in  my eyes, it is in the character of Pridmore, the dishonest, embezzling, and cruel overseer. The character not only seems single-dimensional, but making the overseer violent, unlikeable, and hatefully racist strikes me as too easy.  I much prefer the moments in these novels in which a character we otherwise like shows signs - subtly or not -  of being infected with the racist or otherwise intolerant attitudes of society as a whole. We saw this clearly in the middle volume ( Without a Summer ) when Lady Jane was quite mistrustful of a family because of their Catholic faith. We see hints of it again here when she - in an absolutely beautifully imagined part of the novel  - begins the effort of writing a book comparing the theories and even language regarding glamour across cultures. When Nkiruka, one of the plantations slaves, learns that the reason Jane has been discussing this with her is to write a book, the woman reacts thusly:

“You take…” Nkiruka growled and turned to Amey, speaking rapidly with phrases accented by gestures at the paper then at Jane. 

The young woman shook her head as she replied. Jane could only watch the conversation with an increasing want of comprehension, until finally Amey turned to her. “She upset that you writing a book and taking credit for her drawings and ideas.” 

“Teach each other. That ah one thing. Book? No. Done tek enough, done profit enough.” 

“Oh, but…” But … that was precisely what Jane had been prepared to do. It had not been her intention to steal Nkiruka’s ideas or to take credit for them, but nowhere in the structure of her book had she allotted space to acknowledge that half the ideas were not hers. 

She is, of course, right. What makes this  scene work for me is the way it's so easy in the nineteenth century - and even today in the twenty-first - to ignore the agency of someone we instinctively see as lesser or, at the very least, other. In a way, it said more about the evils of slavery than having slaves beaten by a malicious man; had an otherwise good man been overseeing the slaves, the conflict would be much more poingant to me

Overall, this was quite the engaging book which, in a slightly sentimental denouement, nicely wrapped up the entire series.  All five volumes are highly recommended. Now that this is finished I very much look forward to seeing what Kowal does next. 

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