Review: “Of Noble Family” by Mary Robinette Kowal

ofnoblefamily_marykowalFinal Rating: fivecupsFive cups of glorious, slightly tearful tea.

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Ahh, yes; my fondest weakness: Regency-era fiction. And not only that, but Regency-era fiction with magic, which is quite possibly the best combination since peanut butter and chocolate. Add to that several healthy dollops of true love, adventure, suspense, and a surplus of of cravats…and you’ve got yourself one helluva book.

Regular readers may recognize Kowal’s name from my review earlier this year of Valour and Vanitythe novel which precedes this one. V&V was my first experience with her work, and I completely carried away by her thrilling re-imagining of a Jane Austen inspired world. Of Noble Family is no different, and at this point I’m already planning ways to start collecting every single book in the Glamourist Histories series; my bookshelf will simply be too empty otherwise.

Before we start the review in earnest, however, I must first apologize. I am, technically, disobeying the author’s advice: A few months ago, she was kind enough to not only read and share my review of Valour and Vanity but also gave me recommendations on which books in the series to read while I was waiting for Of Noble Family to be released. But last week I stopped by my local library on a whim, and I kid you not when I say that Of Noble Family was the very first book I saw when I approached the New Releases shelf. Honestly, it would have been less conspicuous if an angelic beam of light was trained on it from up above. There was no stopping myself by that point. Mary, I am terribly sorry, but hopefully with this scene in mind, you can forgive me going back on my Twitter-promise. 🙂

Of Noble Family deals with some intense, emotional topics; so I must get a few things out of the way early-on. First, because I’ll be diving into some deeper stuff for this review, I want to make sure it’s plain how much I loved this book. It made me laugh, cry, and white-knuckle the edges of it as I gripped it in sheer suspense. I held my breath in some parts. It was both exactly what I was expecting, and radically different. It was, in short, an absolutely fantastic book. While I do feel that some may find this novel difficult to read due to its content, I can truly not recommend it highly enough. It is well written, utterly engaging, and everything I ever ask from my books.

Second, I’m putting a broad trigger warning on the rest of this post for discussions of emotional abuse, physical abuse, racism, and slavery. Please read this review (and this book) with these factors in mind. Furthermore, as a white person, I want to make it exceedingly clear that I’m not any kind of authority on racism or the history of slavery in this country or any other. When I say this book does a good job of honestly portraying these things, I mean that in the context of someone who was indoctrinated to believe numerous lies about slavery, as well as someone who is used to seeing fantasy authors use slavery as a shortcut to prove how bad their bad guys are, or as some kind of lazy flavor-text to “explain” why black people exist in a locale when they have, in fact, always existed.

Now, for the rest.

Of Noble Family is, at its heart, a book about two things: Privilege, and the life-long consequences of surviving emotional and physical abuse. The plot has Jane and Vincent traveling to Antigua to settle family business after the death of Lord Verbury, Vincent’s father. As a white, English noblewoman, Jane is rather unprepared for the stark differences between London society and Antiguan society; namely that slavery is still alive and well here. Jane is also unprepared for the fact that her whiteness carries with it not only an automatic authority, but the assumption that she will abuse that authority. And it was at this point that I held my breath for the first time while reading this book, because a lot of authors I know would immediately make Jane’s confrontation of her own privilege into a treacly, self-indulgent moment of distress and insistence on “colorblindness”. Instead, Jane does not make these moments about herself, nor does the author. In a world where people practically trip over themselves to say how “brave” white women are for making only the smallest amounts of effort to address systematic racism, I found myself exhaling with a great deal of relief.

This style of very obviously and very repeatedly highlighting Jane’s white privilege continues throughout the book, and is handled much the same in each instance. Most of the time, Jane either immediately apologizes for her misstep, (making amends if necessary) or simply internalizes the information and corrects herself mentally. (Sadly, this puts her leagues ahead of most white feminists I know) As she grows, Jane also begins to criticize and discourage the privilege of the other white women on the island, which was a relief since I wanted to yell quite angrily at most of them. I recognized a lot of my past self in Jane, as I slowly began to disassemble the lifetime of lies I had been sold and realized, much like Jane, that I had become used to discussing the evils of slavery and racism as concepts rather than realities. They were ideas to be disapproved of over tea, and not things that affected real people in the here and now. Except, of course, that they do.

There were also times when Jane missed moments of her own privilege, and other characters pointed it out to her. At first, I tensed when this happened, because I was expecting the inevitable “black friend” syndrome to crop up…but no. At no point were any of the women of color (of which there are many) reduced to simple fact portals, nor did any of them exist purely to fuel Jane’s personal growth. They were characters unto themselves, all with their own distinct personalities, goals, and reactions. As far as I could tell (and this is the part where me not being any kind of authority comes into play) none of them were reduced to the stereotypes of black women, either. They also weren’t monolith: They had their own societies, cultures, and privileges to contend with when they interacted with each other. Sometimes, they disagreed or fought with one another. Other times, it was clear that those who had privilege were clinging to it with every fiber of their being, because they knew exactly what would happen to them if they didn’t maintain that invisible line.

There was also little sugarcoating about what these women had to contend with under slavery; namely that the term “mistress” was a very misleading title, assuming that they had any real choice in the matter. They didn’t. Of Noble Family makes this very clear, without being gratuitous. Jane and the reader both know why that woman is pregnant, or why that woman flinches when a man touches her. It was done as well as it could be, I feel; though I admit there were times when I wished for revenge. There isn’t any, but part of me wishes there had been.

Which brings us to the other theme of the book. While Jane is dealing with her privileges, Vincent is dealing with the lingering effects of growing up under an abusive father. This is something I am intimately familiar with, and my heart ached to see him going through so many of the same things which I did. What most people don’t realize is that even if you are lucky enough to physically get away from your abuser, mentally a part of you is with them forever. There will, for Vincent and I both, likely never be a time when we don’t hear our father’s voice in our head; yelling at us about having a sleeve pulled up too far or too low, or how we aren’t sweeping the floor quite right, or how we are cowards for walking away when a conversation becomes nothing but thinly veiled insults. There will always be a part of us that screams at us when we make a mistake, because mistakes leave you vulnerable and that is dangerous and if he finds out…why couldn’t we have just tried harder? We must try harder. There must be no gaps in the wall. And we must, above all else, appear calm.

We are also both not quite sure what to make of the feeling of…nothing when confronted with the death of our father. Should we mourn? Should we be relieved? Both? None? What is there left to feel, when he has taken every emotion we’ve ever had and twisted it into something foul? And then, the worries that we might pass on this sickness to our own children. I, like Vincent, sometimes have waking nightmares about what I might be like if I were angry enough. Would I hit them? Would I yell at them? Will my own pain and sadness turn them into what I am now? I think I’m (probably) a good person, but will that be enough?

There is, in short, no end to it. Experiencing abuse at any time in your life is horrible, but growing up with it leaves marks on you that you can never erase. You just have to find ways to live with them, and make your peace as best you can. Watching Vincent struggle with these feelings in almost exactly the same way I have was at once cathartic and heartbreaking; I was teary-eyed on more than one occasion. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ve ever found a fictional character who so closely mirrored my own experiences. It was…difficult, but very touching.

In closing, while Of Noble Family is not quite what I expected, it ended up being just what I needed. The care and the honesty with which Kowal writes is a breath of fresh air in a world where too many fantasy authors (including myself, not so long ago) are still like polite London society: Discussing abolition with their pinky-fingers out over tea and scones, while their characters bear bulky burdens of abuse clumsily put upon their shoulders to explain why they are “broken”. Please read this book, if you can. I promise it will be worth your time.

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