Jun 042015

Cover for Mary Robinette Kowal's Of Noble Family. A young black woman wears an updo and white gown of the Regency period, the bright background making her glow ethereally.Locus: Of Noble Family, book five of Mary Robinette Kowal’s “The Glamourist Histories”, concludes the sequence with emphatic proof that her world-building and her characters can’t be constrained by the standard tropes of alternate-historic magical fantasies or variations on Regency Romance. There’s a sharp irony in the epigraph, from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park: “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.”

Questions of identity drive these books, centered around the husband in a married pair of glamourists. David Vincent couldn’t come into his own until he cast off his former self: the Honourable Vincent Hamilton, third son of Lord Verbury (an earl). Of Noble Family forces David to confront that self and its heritage, when he gets word of his father’s death: not in England, but on the Hamiltons’ sugar cane estate on the Caribbean island of Antigua (British West Indies), where the tyrant long held sway.

Prompted to visit Antigua with Jane, he hopes it will be a brief interlude. In this family stronghold, he’s obliged to become “Vincent” again, and signs of his father’s lasting influence confront him everywhere ­ from the mansion where mulatto house servants bear the Hamilton “stamp” in their features, to the fields and factory where black workers are lashed for the least mistake. Early on, he tries to fend off Jane’s concern with a quip (“How delightful to revisit old times”), but the ordeal continues much longer than expected. When he’s shaken badly by a conversation at a dinner party, Vincent’s professed “embarrassment” baffles her, so he explains:

It is my own inability to govern myself. What do I have to weep over? That my father spoke harshly to me? That he forbade me to use glamour as a boy? I go about the estate and I see men and women who are beaten and living in the most execrable conditions and bear it. Yet I am unmanned by… dinner?

Beneath the interplay of passion and genteel self-mockery, there’s fear. A gifted glamourist must remain alert to the dangers inherent in spinning illusions from an unearthly source that can ravage both mind and body: a “womanly art” as perilous as childbirth. Of Noble Family makes that latter risk quite real, for Jane herself is pregnant.

The Regent’s royal glamourists were free to make this journey during an official period of mourning for a princess’s stillborn child: months where the Court wears black and magic isn’t practiced, out of respect for the dead. A previous book dealt with Jane’s own stillbirth, an episode that haunts her and puts the new pregnancy at risk. The first hints of her condition arise when she wonders whether her bouts of nausea during the Atlantic crossing might be more than seasickness. In the parlance of the time, she’s “increasing,” but the true reason for her girth will become evident all too soon.

Even when the wife whom Vincent calls a force of nature can no longer roam the island at will, or practice magics which might harm a child in embryo, her intellect remains lively; there’s much to occupy it here. The strong African elements in Antigua’s mixture of cultures (fading in the youngest slaves but preserved by some wise elders) spur Jane to learn about terms and concepts for glamour so different from Europe’s that they force her to question everything she thought she knew.

Faced with a host of dangers, this couple will need both skill and luck to survive ­ and, perhaps, finally achieve the “tolerable comfort” Austen teases the Reader for demanding.