(Benjamin January, #1)
My book club selection for this month.
Previously (and many years ago) I’d read a few of Hambly’s early fantasy books, and not been overly impressed – they were OK, but didn’t transcend any of the genre standards. After reading ‘A Free man of Color’ at a friend’s recommendation, I can confirm that yes, Hambly definitely improved over time.
Aside from a few suggestions that voodoo curses and/or protective charms may be efficacious, the book does not have fantasy elements – it’s historical fiction. Benjamin January is the titular ‘free man of color.’ Of African heritage and raised in New Orleans, he is both a trained surgeon and an accomplished musician. Recently returned to his home town, after having spent the past few years in France, where he was accorded a certain degree of respect, he’s experiencing a great deal of ‘culture shock’ in adjusting to the inferior status he holds in New Orleans. And the racism in Louisiana is getting worse, as the region’s French culture is diluted by an influx of boorish men with an ‘American’ identity and an assumption that anyone with dark skin deserves nothing more than to be enslaved.
The reader has to ask why January would stay in such an inhospitable environment. Hambly strives to answer the question: January is fleeing his grief over the death of his wife; he feels an obligation to friends and family; he has a sense of ‘belonging’ and ‘home’ tied to New Orleans. I didn’t find all these reasons fully convincing. I myself would’ve been outta there in a hot second. But I could accept that someone else might feel differently, and might’ve behaved as January does here.
The plot itself is a standard mystery/investigation: During a courtesans’ ball, a woman is found murdered. As the victim was a woman of mixed race, and of ‘low moral standing’ to boot, the first reaction is to sweep the incident under the closest convenient rug. Benjamin January, with an innate sense of justice, doesn’t allow that to happen. However, soon afterwards he realizes that his attempt to do the right things may not have been in his self-interest. He was one of the last people to see the victim alive, and it’d be far easier to pin the crime on a black man than to investigate a crime which was probably committed by a white man, and one likely highly placed in society, at that. January’s only hope to avoid being arrested may be to try to solve the crime himself, in order to clear his name.
But as he looks into what may have happened and who may have had a grudge against this woman, things only get more complicated. For she wasn’t a particularly nice person, and the list of people who may have held something against her only gets longer, the more details emerge…
The solid mystery plot is raised from 3 to 4 stars by the meticulous and well-incorporated historical and social details; which make for fascinating reading – and also by the satisfying yet bittersweet ending. There were several ‘easy outs’ the author could have taken in finishing up the story – and she opted for none of them, resulting in a much better book than this might’ve been.
I’d definitely read more in this series.