The Blogger on Books Series dates back to my time on My Space. Put a book nerd on social media, what am I going to talk about? Books, of course. And a series was born. I write about books just-read. Not every one; just the ones I want to write about. Catch Blogger on Books IV, V , and VI here on the site and Blogger on Books 1 through 3 on Wadadli Pen (my other blog). Every now and again I’ll migrate one of those My Space reviews over here as well; those are tagged as throwback reviews.
Last read …
Of Noble Family (book five in the Glamourist Histories) by Mary Robinette Kowal
Book synopsis (abridged): Vincent receives word that his estranged father has passed away on one of his properties in the West Indies…no one else in his family can go…when (Jane and Vincent) finally arrive … the entire estate is in disarray, with horrifying conditions and tensions with the local slave population so high that they are close to revolt. (Jane and Vincent) have survived many grand and terrifying adventures in their time, but this one will test their skills and wits more than any they have ever encountered before, this time with a new life hanging in the balance. Mary Robinette Kowal’s Of Noble Family is the final book of the acclaimed Glamourist Histories.
I’m not going to review this book. I’m going to reflect on the experience of reading it having collaborated in the editing of it some years earlier.
When I started reading (this time purely as a reader), I was hesitant. I had previously been commissioned (as acknowledged in the pages above from the author notes at the back of the book) by the author primarily to review (though the author has also blogged that it was more than this) the Antiguan Creole (what we in Antigua simply call Dialect) spoken by the Black Antiguans in the book. I am a Black Antiguan (albeit a child of the 20th century, a Gen X-er even, and not of the 1800s) and I am a writer and editor, and a published novelist in my own right. These factors made me a good fit for the project but there have been times as a writer or editor when I’ve cringed on seeing/reading the final project (over which I had no control), and the possibility of things being mishandled in this case would be particularly personal to me as a Black person and as an Antiguan. I am 85% happy to say that’s not the case – the author handled the subject matter, the people, the culture, the context with great care. Now and again I tripped over this or that but nothing so great as to make me want to set it aside. And the biggest question mark for me as far as that goes was the book’s claim (perhaps for narrative purpose) that slavery ended in the United Kingdom in 1824 – the UK minus Empire? Because slavery didn’t end throughout the so-called British colonies until 1834, 1838 for some who were subjected to a period of ‘apprenticeship’. Antigua was one of the islands with the earlier end-by date, not 1824 – that would have been a surprise and a miracle for anyone who died within the real 10 years before actual Emancipation without having tasted freedom. So that date is perhaps the thing I would have asked the author about. I’d also be interested in the sourcing on the distinction made in her afterword/notes about planter class attitudes to enslaved people being education (because my reading and general awareness does not suggest a significant distinction in that regard).
Returning to the emancipation date, though, this is work of a fiction and a certain amount of license is to be expected (though I might argue that that’s quite a bit of license, especially in a book that can be taken on faith for so much more). For instance, I was saying to someone how impressed I was with the nuance it brought to the accounting of Black lives in Antigua at that time. The brutality of chattel slavery, rendered in uncomfortable though not voyeuristic/gratuitous detail, to the relative luxury and privilege enjoyed by some among the comparatively smaller free Black population – like the real Hart sisters, whom even before I knew they were referenced in the author’s research I remarked to a friend came to mind when I read its portrayal of one of the women of the landowning class in the book; my remark to them as well about how the rigid colour lines brought about by the sugar plantation social structure blurred in the book in ways not often acknowledged in fictional histories, or even in histories.
The elements of fantasy beyond the use of glamour in a novel set in the regency era and inspired by the works of Jane Austen included *spoiler alert* a community inspired by maroon villages of the slavery era. This was an interesting element, and I can only dream that such a community existed (my own research some years ago when Boggy Peak was renamed to Mount Obama in acknowledgment of the symbolic import to Black people everywhere of a Black man becoming president of the US, revealed that there had been a free slave population at one time in those Shekerly hills which debunked what I had been taught in school about there being no maroons in Antigua as there were no places on our flat island for communities to secrete themselves). *end spoiler alert*
I am not surprised five books in to this Glamourist series, which involved Napoleon’s last stand and stops in the English countryside, London, Vienna, Venice drawing in real life people like Lord Byron, that the research is meticulous. But it was interesting to read the African and Africa-descended characters I’d helped voice, and not be able to understand some of what they said – not the Antiguan Creole but the Igbo/Ibo and other African languages spoken among the older ones, that I foolishly wondered if Kowal had made up (no, she did the research). While some African word and sentence constructions survive in modern Antiguan, much has been lost to me, as through generations of brutal and dehumanizing enslavement and the challenges of the colonial and post-colonial era too much of where they came from was lost to my ancestors. The way the author captures that and the intra-cultural issues (e.g. re colour and language) within the Black community in 1800s Antigua is convincing and effective.
White authors writing about slavery can be problematic, if not empathetic and it is rarely empathetic (too often the violence on Black bodies and spirit negates their humanity in service to the art). Kowal is less guilty than many (if not any) white authors or filmmakers I’ve come across and, in part because my name is attached to the work, but in greater part because of my fealty to my ancestors, I’m grateful for that. Some would argue that the effort results in character attitudes and plot developments that are anachronistic but I think that the character attitudes are consistent with their characterizations and the plot developments are, for the most part, though perhaps not entirely, plausible given the time.
Most importantly from a storytelling standpoint, and this was surprising to me given that I was aware of the plot, the narrative is engaging, entertaining, and surprising. I was surprised that reading this I was till worried for the characters and was struck with relief and elation on their behalf whenever things worked out, as there was never any guarantee that anything would – throughout this series when ever things hung in the balance from the life of a child to the life of the main characters, you never knew, not with certainty what would happen and things didn’t always happen as you wish they would. So it is with this one in which there is death and heartbreak, under the shadow of slavery, as surely as there is life, love, hope, and agency (even given the precarious position in which women, Black people, and especially Black women – and Vincents when their father is a father like his – living in such times find themselves).
It’s a good book; it’s a good series and I’m glad I found it or it found me – I highly recommend it. My additional nitpicks:
-from the first cover in the series to this one, the main female character gets more conventionally beautiful in my view (even as each successive book comments on her “overlong nose and sharp chin”) and I feel quite fond of the Jane on the first cover whose face in my view had a lot more character and was more interesting as a result;
-the locations during the on the road trip on arrival from the port to the plantation in Antigua are off (you wouldn’t ride by carriage or otherwise through Falmouth from St. John’s to get inland as they are literally on different coasts), but I have some sympathy for this having served as a producer on two local films where people who knew the land too well called out the locations chosen for driving routes in the film as being off even when we went to the pains in one of the films of making the island fictional; non-Antiguan readers won’t find anything off about it at all. As a writer myself, I give a long rope for artistic license so I am not as bothered as I perhaps should be, as another Antiguan might be; more puzzled given how meticulous the author is about research.
Older Reads (i.e. books completed)…
13 Strategies to Elevate Your Career by Janice Sutherland (exclusively e-book)
Animal Farm by George Orwell (audio book)
The Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books Volume ll Number 1 Summer 2018 (edited by Professor Paget Henry)
The Black Rose by Tananarive Due
Children of the Spider by Imam Baksh
Dreamland Barbuda: A Study of the History and Development of Communal Land Ownership on the island of Barbuda by Asha Frank
Evolution: Weaving in and out of Consciousness while the Truth is Somewhere in the Middle by Felene M. Cayetano
DNF – Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff – quick take
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (audio book) – quick take
Giant Size X-Men – Stan Lee presents The Uncanny X-Men – Second Genesis (comic) by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum w/Glynis Wein and John Costanza – quick take
Inner City Girl by Colleen Smith-Dennis
How to be a Knight in 10 Easy Stages by Scoular Anderson – quick take
London Rocks by Brenda Lee Browne
The Masquerade Dance by Carol Ottley-Mitchell w/illustrator Daniel J. O’Brien
On this Island The Natives… by Dale Butler with illustrator Lindsey George – quick take
Pirate Party by Scoular Anderson – quick take
Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker
Ororo: Before the Storm (1-3 of 3 issue limited comic book series) by Mark Sumerak with illustrator Carlo Barberi – quick take
The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton (audio book) – quick take
The Secret by Rhonda Byrne
Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin (audio book) – not completed but… – quick take
Storm and Illyana Magik-Little Girl Lost (1-3 of 4 issue limited comic book series) by Chris Claremont w/illustrators Brent Anderson, John Buscema, Ron Frenz, and Sal Buscema
Storm: Prelude to the Wedding of the Century (3-6 of 6 issue limited comic book series) by Eric Jerome Dickey w/David Yardin, Jay Leisten, and Matt Milla
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera – quick take
X-Women One Shot (comic)- quick take
A note re DNFs: I’ve had more DNFs (Did not Finish) this year than perhaps in my whole reading life combined. It’s not that books have gotten worse, it’s that I’m learning to be okay with letting go of things that I’m just not that in to (life is too short). That said, some of the books I abandoned – some for now, some forever – I really liked. The first two DNFs abandoned in March were audio books and I have difficulty staying focused with audio books; it doesn’t help if the book itself is a dud. One was a James Baldwin so that’s obviously not the case with him; I actually feel quite a hunger for Baldwin these days and do hope to return to this story at a later date. I had another DNF in May but that was a text book co-written by a friend of mine; I read what interested me then gave the book to one of my kids as a supplementary school text (and I did a quick take on it). I DNF’d Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff because life is too short – the show is entertaining at first but then the reality that this is life sets in and it’s just depressing to read. I DNF’d a thesis I was reading because, though I’ve edited some in the past, and really appreciated the set-up (like the first third or so), academic language can be too jargon-heavy and tedious to read on my time and it became more so as it got more specific. I value it as a work of research but I struggled to maintain attention, though still interested. I pushed it longer than I did any of the other DNFs; that’s how interested I was. My other August DNF was a collection I’d been asked to read ahead of a launch; I just didn’t have the time and oddly trying to read it after the launch felt anti-climatic. In September, a month in which I find myself with even less time and mental space, I DNF’d three publications – one another thesis, one a lit magazine, and one the fourth/final book (having read books 1-3) in the Storm and Illyana Magik-Little Girl Lost comic book limited series (I had some computer issues *understatement* and lost a lot of files including my comic e-files). It’s okay. But if you’re keeping count, that’s 9 DNFs up to September 27th 2019.