Book Review: Of Noble Family
by Mary Robinette Kowal
The neatly charismatic concept underlying Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Glamourist History” series is to re-imagine the Regency novels of Jane Austen in a world girded all around by a kind of magic accessible to everybody, glamour-magic that can be shaped into images, material, lights and shapes. Through glamour, with her characters pulling glittering forms out of the ether, Kowal has managed to craft a series of novels not quite like anything else in the fantasy field. Of Noble Family, her latest novel, is the fifth and final book in that series, and reading its Jane Austen-style two-page wrap-up of its main characters’ lives gives an unexpectedly sharp pang. This has been an unfailingly graceful series; it’ll be missed.
In this fifth installment, our hero and heroine, Jane and Sir David Vincent, fresh from the personal and supernatural upheavals of the previous volumes, are counting on a little rest and rehabilitation when a message reaches them from Vincent’s family estate in the West Indies is badly in need of supervision in the wake of his father’s death. The pair, although still emotionally rocked by Jane’s miscarriage in an earlier novel, set out to make the voyage to Vincent’s patrimony, and along the way, Kowal does her usual evocative job of making glamour-magic real, as in the moment when Jane, having summoned a glowing ball of energy, concentrates to make it invisible:
Jane let her own vision shift from the corporeal world into the second sight of the ether and loosened the strings of light that made up the red ball. She let them slacken into nether-red, the area of the spectrum below visible sight. In her own second sight, the strands of glamour glowed. They stretched out of the ether, wrapped around her hand and twisted into the shape of a ball. Her view of the corporeal world was little more than a dim, grey perception of the room.
During the voyage, Vincent notices that Jane is becoming more seasick than usual, and it’s not a large leap to figure out what’s really going on:
Vincent slid an arm around Jane to offer support as her stomach heaved in time with the ship. He paused, with his hand upon her stomach. For a moment, she heard a small, high whine, as if his breath were imperfectly held around a thought that was slowly leaking out. He must notice the change. Surely, he could remember what her health had been like the last time and note the likeness. He had, perhaps, suspected for some time, but the standards of polite society indicated that one did not discuss such delicate matters in mixed company, even with one’s wife, unless pressed. And Jane had said nothing, because doing so would make the child real. If she miscarried without ever acknowledging that she was increasing, then she would not need to mourn again.
The subtleties running through that passage characterize the book and the series in general; these are far more psychological than supernatural novels – in fact, fantasy literature purists might carp on them precisely because they’d scarcely be lessened if all elements of fantasy were deleted from them. The vibrant personal elements of them would be no less powerful. When Vincent snarls at Jane about his evil father, “Sometimes my first instinct comes from him. I am shaken enough that you may see a side of me that I dislike. Vehemently,” the moment would lack nothing even if Jane herself weren’t a skilled glamourist.
This was an unusual series for Tor to take a chance on publishing, and it sustains re-reading in a way a great many fantasy series don’t. Of Noble Blood is the longest book of the series, the most complex, and the most contemplative. It’s a mighty strong note on which to end.