Mary Robinette Kowal’s Valour and Vanity and Of Noble Family are the fourth and fifth books in her Glamourists series; allegedly, they’re also the last ones, but there’s plenty of room for sequels yet, so I’ll refrain from stating that as an outright fact.

The fourth book follows our protagonists as they travel to Europe again, this time to Venice, where they are quickly embroiled in intrigues and skullduggery. It’s a good read, but I think the plot might not hold up on close examination—it’s one of those stories that’s so intricately plotted with reverses and bluffs and detailed schemes that it seems like the whole plot would fall apart if all the characters hadn’t behaved in precisely the right way at all times. But that’s a problem that mostly comes up after the book is done, and it’s enjoyable while you read it, so… just don’t re-read it, I guess? (Or do, if you want; maybe I’m wrong, and it all does hold up plausibly well.)

The fifth book follows the same protagonists as they travel to the West Indies, where they end up dealing with the ethics of running a sugar plantation worked by slaves. This might be my least favorite of the books, because yes, the protagonists are good and decent and humane people and do their best to do the right things within the narrow confines of social acceptability; but at the end of the day, the only “right thing” to do with a system of hereditary aristocracy and slavery is to burn the whole corrupt edifice down. Breezing in and out with some genteel reforms before going back to a life of noble privilege seems insufficient.

And I understand the genre Kowal is working in here doesn’t really allow for that sort of revolutionary action; nor would it be in keeping with the character of the protagonists, who are thoroughly inculcated with the staid, conservative values of the English aristocracy. But it’s hard to really feel too bad about the personal travails of a wealthy noble couple when they’re set in the midst of a brutal slave society, no matter how vaguely well-intentioned they are.

And yes, that slave society was always there even when it was offscreen in the other books, and so in a way Kowal is just showing what the previous books (and other works set in the time period) were ignoring; still and all, it’s frustrating and unsatisfying in a way that is not really compatible with the sort of books these are. It’s very difficult to tonally reconcile an unflinching look at societal evils with an airy aristocratic romance.

Still, if I didn’t find the last book wholly satisfying, it does have a lot to recommend it; and the series as a whole is solidly enjoyable. Worth reading for fans of the genre.


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