PLEASE NOTE: This review, by necessity, contains spoilers for the first four books in The Glamourist Histories series.
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It’s been almost six years since the first volume in Mary Robinette Kowal’s lovely The Glamourist Histories series, Shades of Milk and Honey, was published. That was when we first met modest Jane Ellsworth and the glowering glamour artiste Mr. Vincent. In the best Regency fashion (with the added bonus of magic!), we experienced their unorthodox relationship, saw them grow together and, in subsequent books, build a life around each other and their magical art.
Jane and Vincent have weathered the Napoleonic War, the Luddite uprising, Vincent’s caustic family, espionage, entrapment, prejudice and even pirates! They have reveled in their art, forwarded glamourist technique, met luminaries such as Lord Byron, and become the Crown Prince’s appointed glamourists to great acclaim and celebrity. Through all the triumphs and trials, and even through personal tragedy, they have grown closer over the years; he is still her beloved, she is still his Muse.
In Of Noble Family, the fifth in The Glamourist Histories series, we are teased with the idea that life has finally stabilized for Lady Jane and Sir David. They are back in London, surrounded by Jane’s family, cherished friends and celebrated associates. But then tragic news arrives: Vincent’s mean spirited father, who had fled to the West Indies rather than face charges of treason against the Crown, has died, and Vincent’s two older brothers have been in a horrific carriage accident in Dorset, killing the eldest, Garland, and leaving middle brother Richard an invalid.
Although Vincent is estranged from his coldly aristocratic family (even to the point of casting off the name of “Hamilton” and forging his life anew as David Vincent), his only remaining brother writes from his sickbed and implores Vincent to travel to Antigua, to see to their father’s will and set the estate in order. Although the idea of having to deal with his father, even in death, causes Vincent untold anguish, his sense of honor and obligation to the memory of his mother, and to his one remaining brother – as well as the straightforwardness of the task – wins out, and before long Jane and Vincent are sailing toward the West Indies.
Of course, nothing is ever that simple for Vincent and Jane (or Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton, as they are known in Antigua). Two unforeseen and highly agitating developments, one shocking and one joyous, conspire to keep them in the West Indies much longer than they had anticipated, and the couple finds colonial life on the Hamilton estate to be the antithesis of their genteel sensibilities, and a strain on each of them, both personally and professionally.
Of Noble Family is a wonderful addition to The Glamourist Histories, and I would argue that it is the strongest installment since Shades of Milk and Honey. While the historical aspect of this novel may not be as sweeping as the turmoil following Napoleon’s escape from Elba (Glamour in Glass), the British crop failures and social unrest of 1816 (Without a Summer), or being cast destitute on Murano, Italy after being beset by Barbary corsairs (Valour and Vanity), it resonates on a more personal level, and the incorporation of the magic of glamour in this novel is beautifully articulated.
Both Jane and Vincent know what it’s like to feel the sting of adversity, and to rise above it. Their sympathies have always been on the side of those who are ignored, dismissed, or overlooked. Therefore, finding themselves in the role of wealthy European landowners in the West Indies in 1818 is a quite shocking, eye opening experience for both of them. The slave trade had been abolished in England in 1807, and slavery itself was not popular there even among the nobility (although the actual abolition of slavery didn’t come until 1833), but in the Caribbean, not only was slavery thriving, but it was an entrenched way of life for the colonials who ran its huge plantations. Nor could Vincent simply free the slaves living and working on the Hamilton estate; laws – both legal and social – ensured that thwarting the current system was virtually impossible. Even trying to better the lives of the slaves that they had inherited had unexpected, frustrating, and sometimes even dangerous consequences.
Throw in an unscrupulous plantation manager, having to maintain a charade of expected gentry, and convoluted family entanglements, and we find both Jane and Vincent in a constant state of agitation and resentment at the farce they are forced into upholding. Still, they do find some moments of satisfaction and even grace; Jane’s excitement over the discovery of native African glamour techniques and her friendship with “retired” field hand Nkiruka Chinwe who demonstrates those techniques to her absolutely shine in an otherwise tawdry experience.
And as always, Mary Robinette Kowal’s meticulous research and historical acumen bring the story into sharp and invigorating focus, adding layers of intrigue – and understanding – to what in lesser hands would be a potentially lightweight or predictable tale, without losing a bit of the delightful Regency feel that is the centerpoint of all The Glamourist Histories. (Ms. Kowal immerses herself so deeply into historical accuracy, that she even designed – and sewed – the Regency dress that adorns the model on the cover of her novel. How many other authors rise to that level of authenticity in their work?) She is able to take a period of history that is awash in romantic hyperbole and give it a depth of humanity that is eye opening and, even, enlightening. And yet, the seamless addition of the magical glamourist art makes the story so fresh and surprising.
Okay, I’m not saying this very gracefully, and I’m not able to share everything I would like in this review because I don’t want to spoil any of the delightful plot twists and intrigues that are part of the tale, but The Glamourist Histories is a very adept and entertaining series, and Of Noble Family is one of the best of the series. If you love Jane Austin, or historical dramas, or Regency literature, or skillfully integrated magic, or really well crafted tales, you will definitely enjoy this book; if they haven’t already, Jane and Vincent will become more than characters on the page, they will become family. A very stylized and, well, noble family, but a family you will cherish.