Of Noble Family
by Mary Robinette Kowal
Cover Artist: Larry Rostant
Review by Gayle Surrette
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765378361
Date: 28 April 2015 List Price $27.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Jane and Vincent have returned to England and are staying with Jane's family, which now includes her sister, her sister's husband, and Jane's new nephew. Unfortunately for Jane and Vincent, a death in the royal family means that all glamour is forbidden until the mourning period ends. Thus there is little opportunity for them to find employment.
Vincent gets word from his brother that their father has died of a stroke while at his property in Antigua. Unfortunately, he can't go to settle affairs because he's recently been injured in an accident and asks if Vincent could possibly go in his stead. Jane knows that this request is not as simple as it might seem, as Vincent's father had tried to get Vincent convicted of treason and has made his life miserable since he was a small child. After much discussion, Jane and Vincent agree to the trip.
They set off for the long voyage. Aboard ship they learn that the sailors have found a way to play with glamour while at sea, something that was thought to be impossible. They know they are going toward the unknown and are a bit concerned when some of the officers aboard ship let slip information about the state of affairs on the island regarding slaves and freedmen.
Once they land in Antigua, they are overwhelmed with the heat as well as the evident divisions, or rather striations in the society. Moving onward, they arrive at the plantation to find conditions are not at all what they had been lead to believe. Vincent and Jane are faced with the irrefutable fact that Vincent has a number of half-siblings as his father had chosen a mistress from among his female slaves. That these children of his father are slaves still is unnerving for Jane and Vincent, although unnerving is a great understatement.
Vincent wants to finish the settling of the estate and return to England as soon as possible. However, things are far more complicated and they are forced to bide their time, seeking to find a way to resolve the issues that face them. Meanwhile they are finding the attitude of the other plantation owners disappointing, and the manner of in which the slaves are forced to live and work appalling.
As usual the writing draws the reader in, painting a clear picture of the reality of the time through the eyes of Jane and Vincent, who know of the concept of slavery and its practice in Europe and England and the changes that have been achieved there. But when they are faced with the situation in Antigua, they are not prepared mentally for that reality, either when dealing with a society that doesn't even understand or acknowledge the humanity of the people that they consider property.
While Of Noble Family is an interesting tale of adventure, danger, and intrigue, it is also one that lays out the realities of a time in history that most are not familiar with, and probably haven't thought about. There's plenty in these pages to think about long after you finish the book. It's entertainment that sneaks up on you and makes you consider subjects that many would prefer to gloss over and ignore, but it doesn't preach, and it doesn't shove these concepts or problems in the reader's face. They are simply the background, and events germane to the story of Jane and Vincent's efforts to come to grips with their own problems and issues.