Barbara Hambly

Benjamin January - Free Man of Color, 1830's New Orleans


"Days of the Dead"

(Reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer JUN 18, 2003)

"If ever I have earned your regard or affection, please come and engage in a few sleuth-hound tactics. I am at a complete loss to imagine how anyone but myself could have made quietus for young Fernando--who certainly deserved what he got--and if you do not prove otherwise I shall soon be forced to begin suspecting myself. Please come. I am in fairly desperate straights, though, as I said, I believe I shall be safe enough until the Days of the Dead."

Days of the Dead by Barbara Hambly

It is not exactly the type of thing a man wants to read on his wedding day. Benjamin January, finally and despite all odds, is about to marry the lovely Rose Vitrac. This letter, from their old friend Hannibal Sefton, doesn't interrupt the plans, but it does direct where the new couple will be taking their honeymoon. In a previous book (Die Upon a Kiss) Hannibal met the lovely and seductive opera singer Consuelo, and ran away with her to Mexico City. This is where her father, a fairly powerful man with connections to Santa Anna lives a passionate and half mad existence. Hannibal had been staying with them (his violin playing is amazingly eloquent, and therefore Don Prospero requires him to stay and play for him.) when one evening he took two glasses filled with brandy from the sideboard and went in to the study to visit

Fernando, Prospero's son. Before he went in, people saw him take out a small bottle and pour the contents into one of the glasses. Fernando is later found dead. Hannibal declares that he is innocent, and Prospero, even though he doesn't believe him; no one does...but since Fernando was such a brute, everyone but Prospero is sort of happy about Fernando's demise...even Consuelo, Hannibal's lover, thinks Hannibal's guilty. Prospero has decided to wait until the Days of the Dead, when the spirits come back, and ask his son what he wants done with the violinist.

Read excerptHannibal a murderer? Long time readers of this series won't be able to believe it. I don't...but then I thought the only flaw with the book before this one (Wet Grave) was the fact that Hannibal wasn't in it. Benjamin and Rose don't believe it, either...and they turn their considerable skills to tracking down the clues and trying to figure out exactly who and why. It is a classic locked room case in some ways...Fernando was locked in the study, the only other person who went in was a well trusted servant. The challenges for the couple are a little different than usual. As a free man of color in New Orleans, Benjamin usually has to abide by a careful set of rules. There are still rules...and prejudices...in Mexico City, but the problem (as long as Benjamin and Rose are careful to keep a certain show of having money) is more with them being outsiders than anything else. That, and keeping the trust of a man whose madness seems insidious...Prospero's obsession with Aztec deities flavors the background, forming a sagacious counterpoint to the upcoming Catholic festivals. We also get a very detailed look at life for these people...from the food, and the way the upper-class eschew the native cuisine, to the enforced slavery that poverty and lack of jobs has created, to the strange, almost hysterical way some of the women devote themselves to the church. When we see the sacrifice of a young daughter to a convent, we can draw a parallel to the sacrifices of a virgin to some Aztec god, and wonder if the human race has really changed all that much over time.

While the background adds a delicious undertone of creepiness and realism, it is the mystery itself that really holds the reader. Hambly doesn't take any easy outs...the people you think have to be guilty are not, the people you think have to hold the perfect clue don't. The only things you do know is that Hannibal has to be innocent, Benjamin and Rose January are more than up to this task, and that the days of the dead are creeping up fast.

This series is a constant treat. Hambly brings into play incredible characters, tricky mysteries, and richly drawn historical backgrounds to make a consistent, intelligent mystery.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 12 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Days of the Dead at MostlyFiction.com

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"Wet Grave"

(Reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer MAY 8, 2002)

"You know what they say of white men in Louisiana," January told the boy. "That they come here seeking their fortunes, but all they find is a wet grave."

Wet Grave by Barbara Hambly

Benjamin January is a free man of color, a Paris trained surgeon and talented pianist in decadent 1830's New Orleans. When Benjamin January is taken to a murder scene by his sister, the enigmatic Voodooine Olympe, he never expected the victim to be the beautiful mistress of one of Jean Lafitte's pirates. Her glory days are long over, and she is much different from Benjamin's memory of their brief encounter. No longer the wild beauty dressed up in silks and topaz, she has become a desperate drunk, doing anything for the price of a bottle. When the police, caught up in their own mysterious murder can't investigate, January decides that it's up to him. He doesn't start his search simply because of his memories of her, or because there was no real reason to murder Hesione, who lived in a run down shack and begged for her food. It's the signs that someone waited a long time for her to come home, and the handful of money found in her apron pocket, more than enough to keep her in food for a month.

Read excerptOne of the most remarkable things about this series is the fact that the main character is a free man of color during the time when slavery was still in force, where he must carry papers everywhere to prove his freedom at a moment's notice, where to raise his hand to defend himself against an attack is a hanging offence if the attacker is white. It binds our hero in ways most heroes aren't bound. In most stories, if our protagonist kills a person in self defense it's no problem. If he or she is taken prisoner, then another person is likely to free them should the chance arrive. Ben has no such luxuries. If he is caught, his papers taken away, it's his word against his white captors that he is not a slave, and in a country where Italians can be mistaken for runaway "octoroons" and kept prisoner if they have no proof otherwise, his word is unlikely to be taken. It adds an element of danger to the story, a sense of worry for January every time he wanders too far away from the city, and his friends.

In this sixth installment of the Benjamin January series, Ms. Hambly more than proves to us that Ben still has many stories worth telling. She takes us away from the high elegance of the upper class to concentrate on New Orleans during the summer, where all who can have fled the city for more amenable climes. Benjamin and his dauntless Rose end up searching the Barataria, an area of marsh and swamp that surrounds New Orleans. It is where many of the plantations are, and where Lafitte and his Pirates are said to have hidden their treasure. They follow rumors of slave uprisings and murders, determined to answer their questions. She does a wondrous job with setting --- you can feel the mosquitoes buzz around, imagine the teaming and dangerous life that swarms the waters around them. Every character is carefully drawn --- even if she only uses a few words, you can see each player completely in your head, hear every type of dialect from the Kaintuck of head of the city guards Abishag Shaw to the gentle Creole tones of Chloë St Chinian. These characters are so round that people you heard of in passing in the previous book and perhaps didn't care for are completely turned upside down so that in this book, now that you actually meet them, you tend to like them. The conversations are also very well done, in calmer moments filled with that gentle sense of humor that can only come from good friends who are completely comfortable with each other.

The pleasures of this book, and indeed, this series don't only come from the mystery itself. True, the stories are exciting, the actual mystery of the book clever and surprising. The thing that really draws me is the fact that each book is like a bit of time travel, every part of it is well researched, and the characters are an enormous pleasure to be around. I always miss Barbara Hambly's characters a little, when I close the book. Wet Grave is my favorite of the series thus far, with many bits that will please long time readers as well as people just starting.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 19 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Wet Grave at MostlyFiction.com



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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Benjamin January series:

Other:

Sisters of the Raven Series:

The Darwath Trilogy

Sun Wolf and Starhawk

Winterlands

The Windrose Chronicles

James Asher/Vampire Series

Sun-Cross series

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

Barbara HamblyBarbara Hambly was born in San Diego, California in 1951. She grew up in Southern California, with the exception of one high-school semester spent in New South Wales, Australia. She attended the University of California, Riverside and spent a year at the University of Bordeaux, France, specializing in medieval history and eventually obtaining a master's degree in the subject.

She has worked as a teacher, a technical editor and and a karate instructor (she holds a Black Belt in Shotokan karate and has competed in several national-level tournaments), but her first love has always been history. Ranging from fantasy to historical fiction, Barbara Hambly has a masterfulway of spinning a story. Her interest in fantasy began with reading The Wizard of OZ at an early age and it has continued ever since. She was the president of Science Fiction Writers of America from 1994 to 1996.

She married George Alec Effinger in 1998 and now lives in Los Angeles, California.

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