Warning: May contain spoilers for previous books in the GLAMOURIST HISTORIES
With Of Noble Family, Mary Robinette Kowal brings to an end her GLAMOURIST HISTORIES series, set in a fantastical English Regency period. While the book resolves several issues in the lives of Jane and David Vincent, there is no feeling of “winding down.” The book is suspenseful, filled with surprises and real stakes for Jane and her beloved, troubled husband.
In Vienna, Jane and Vincent are interrupted in the midst of a family visit by a letter informing Vincent that his father, the villainous Lord Verbury, has died in Antigua. The Lord fled to Antigua after being accused of treason in England. A carriage accident led to the death of one of Vincent’s brothers and a serious injury to the other, who asks Vincent to go to Antigua to set the estate in order. Jane and Vincent agree to go, although reluctantly (Vincent has turned his back on his family in order to pursue glamourism). On the sea voyage out, Jane has such severe nausea that she suspects she is pregnant.
By the time they reach Antigua, Jane is sure she is expecting. Because of her previous miscarriage, her health and the pregnancy are major plot points. When the couple comes to the estate, Vincent very shortly discovers that they were given nowhere near the whole story. The state of the plantation slaves, and the state of the finances, are causes for distress. The title Of Noble Family is used somewhat ironically, as Vincent is faced with a half-brother and a niece, both of whom are slaves.
Since Jane is precluded from working with the “ether” while pregnant, she decides to write a book about different approaches to glamour, working with two older African slave women. As she assists Vincent with getting the estate’s books in order, she becomes intrigued and concerned about the low birth rates of the plantation slaves, and her two plantation confidants provide no useful information. Jane is sure they know more than they are telling.
Kowal peoples Of Noble Family with interesting characters. Vincent’s half-brother Frank, who is dignified and conflicted, the two slave women Nkiruka and Dolly, the unpleasant overseer Pridmore, and a self-possessed woman “slave doctor” named Jones are believable people; even more so, perhaps, because they don’t exist in the story solely to serve the plot’s needs or Jane’s. They have their own motivations, secrets and dreams. For all of them there is a sense that they had lives that began before the book, and will continue beyond the last page — in short, they read like real people.
Center stage, however, is the relationship between Jane and Vincent. Throughout this series, Vincent’s challenge has been to come to grips with his legacy and his toxic relationship with his father. The stakes are higher than ever, and because of Jane’s high-risk pregnancy, simply leaving is not an option. Vincent’s anger is a source of shame to him, but Jane needs him, so he cannot close her out emotionally the way he has in other books.
Kowal doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to depicting the harsh treatment of slaves and the hypocrisy of the English colonists. Jane herself is not immune; on two occasions she assumes that her needs take precedence over others’. She takes certain things for granted, although by the end of Of Noble Family Jane is questioning many of her own assumptions. Kowal uses small accurate touches to bring home the nuanced cruelty of the practice of slavery: the fact that lighter-skinned slaves were house slaves while darker-skinned relatives labored in the sugar cane fields, the unconcern of breaking up families for financial reasons or as a punishment. At the back of the book, Kowal provides a reading list on slavery in general and Antigua specifically.
There was really only one place where I could not suspend disbelief. Sadly, it is during one of the most tense and frightening scenes in the book, where Jane is being examined by the white male doctor, who plans to bleed her. The physicality and danger is this scene is immediate, but Jane has permitted the examination because she believes Vincent sent the man to her, when only moments before Vincent acceded to her request to have Dr. Jones attend her. By this point in the marriage, Jane must know that Vincent would honor her request. I found Jane’s anger with Vincent implausible. Of course things soon get straightened out, but I was at a loss for why the normally clever Jane would make this kind of mistake.
Throughout the GLAMOURIST HISTORIES series, Jane and Vincent have brought changes to the use of glamour, improving on ways it can be used as an intelligence-gathering tool and as a weapon. In Of Noble Family, I saw two new uses for it. One is medical. The second, without creating a spoiler, is much larger and is, in my opinion, the single best use of glamour in the whole series.
I am sad that there will be no more adventures with Vincent and Jane, but I am pleased with where this story leaves them. The series ends on a high note.
Shades of Milk & Honey — (2010-2015) Publisher: Shades of Milk and Honey is exactly what we could expect from Jane Austen if she had been a fantasy writer: Pride and Prejudice meets Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It is an intimate portrait of a woman, Jane, and her quest for love in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality. Jane and her sister Melody vie for the attentions of eligible men, and while Jane’s skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face. When Jane realizes that one of Melody’s suitors is set on taking advantage of her sister for the sake of her dowry, she pushes her skills to the limit of what her body can withstand in order to set things right — and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.