Barbara Hambly has written some of my very favorite fantasy novels. She’s also famous for the Benjamin January series, about a free black man who solves mysteries in 1830s New Orleans.

I never got around to reading these, despite hearing very positive things, because American historical racism— particularly in the slavery era— is something I find crushingly depressing. Just to be clear: contemporary racism is also depressing. However, there’s certain topics which I personally find really hard to handle, either from over-exposure or just because. Slavery in America is in the top five, along with the Holocaust. I am also a very hard sell on books set in concentration camps.

However, several fans pointed out to me that the Benjamin January series is not solely about racism, and that later books in the series focus more on adventuring. Also that there’s dueling, hurt-comfort, and pirates, and that really the series is about found family and community.

I give you this preface in case you’ve also been avoiding the series for fear of crushing depressingness. This book is not crushingly depressing! I really enjoyed it. Also, for those of you who like worldbuilding, it creates an engrossing, vivid, complex, and, as far as I’m aware, extremely historically accurate milieu. Lots of suspense! Great female characters. Also great male characters. Even very minor characters, who appear only for a scene or two, often suggest an entire novel’s worth of backstory.

I am horrible at following the plots of mysteries and basically read them for the characters and the setting. So I will avoid a close description of the plot. I will just say that Benjamin January was born a slave and freed as a child, became a surgeon in Paris but couldn’t make a living because he was black, and recently moved back to New Orleans after his wife died because everything in Paris reminded him of her.

New Orleans is both familiar and foreign to him after his long absence, which makes him a perfect narrator: he knows everything the reader needs to know, and notices everything because it’s all slightly alien to him. He’s a believably honorable and decent person who tries his best to do the right thing, even in circumstances that make that seem like the worst possible option.

A woman is murdered at a ball, and he’s sucked deeper and deeper into the investigation. The mystery is cleverly constructed, but it’s also an excuse to introduce the society, the characters, and their complex relationships. January is intensely conscious of everyone’s place in society, including his own; the scenes which I did find hard to read were the ones where he’s forced to abase himself to white people in order to survive. Like noir, the murder investigation inevitably uncovers the rot and injustice in society; unlike noir, people who take care of each other and try to do the right thing may well triumph.

I found the novel interesting but slow going for about the first two thirds. There are a lot of characters, some of whom have several names, and I kept losing track of the minor ones. But at that two-thirds mark, January leaves New Orleans to investigate, and the book becomes incredibly suspenseful from that point on. Also, a certain favorite thing of mine makes a delightful surprise appearance that I won't spoil.

I will definitely read more of this. Especially now that I’ve figured out who everyone is and how they’re related. I spent an embarrassingly long time thinking that Minou and Dominique were two different people rather than one person with a nickname.

(I also did this in the Lymond chronicles, which had a character named something like Edmund, Earl of Sandwich, who was alternately called Edmund and Sandwich. It took me two books to figure out that they were the same guy. You’d think I’d have less trouble with movies, but I once was startled when the black-haired, blue-eyed protagonist of a war movie reappeared after his tragic death. I then realized that there were two black-haired, blue-eyed soldiers.)

In short: if you want to read a meticulously researched historical novel in which intersectionality is essential to the story, this book is it. But if that’s all you’ve previously heard about it, I wanted to point out that it’s also surprisingly fun. Daring escapes and dramatic battles figure prominently in the last third.

A Free Man of Color
oursin: Painting of Clio Muse of History by Artemisia Gentileschi (Clio)

From: [personal profile] oursin

Hambly is probably top of the list I am thinking of when I say that certain writers can induce me to read well outside my usual preferences and even against established prejudices, which she has done on more than one score: not just historical mysteries, but also vampires, and novels about the US Civil War.

I was ASTOUNDED during the panel I attended at Loncon about how fantasy writers Get It Rong when saying 'but historical accuracy!' to exculpate their representation of women, and there was an audience question as to writers who do get history as More Complicated, and nobody mentioned Hambly. WHUT.
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio

Oh, I absolutely love this series! I adore the characters, and you haven't even met the best one yet. I think she does a really good job of balancing the life-and-death seriousness of the era with enough swash and buckle to make the books fun and compelling rather than all serious all the time. And since her characters are mostly working-class, she also deals with aspects of the time period that you rarely get in historical fiction, like the everyday struggle for money and lack of a social safety net.
kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore

I just got this first book! Cannot wait to read it.
nestra: (Default)

From: [personal profile] nestra

I have actually been avoiding those because of a fear that they would be crushingly depressing.
skygiants: the aunts from Pushing Daisies reading and sipping wine on a couch (wine and books)

From: [personal profile] skygiants

I really like these books! I read them all a few years ago...but fortunately/unfortunately now there are a bunch more so I've actually in no way read them all. Probably about five or ten years from now I'll decide I'm due a reread and catch all the way up. (Or I'll get assigned them for Yuletide.)
oracne: turtle (Default)

From: [personal profile] oracne

The newer ones have been coming out from a new publisher.
yhlee: Sandman raven with eyeball (Sandman raven (credit: rilina))

From: [personal profile] yhlee

I adore these books and should probably catch up on them at some point. :D

From: [identity profile]

I adore this book. My favorite element (beyond a certain plot twist which I thank you for not spoiling above) is just how suspenseful it is--I was sure that Ben would solve the mystery, but I was not at all confident that the structures that be would allow justice to be done.

And there's a scene in the end where he hits someone that feels so vicariously good--like all the pent-up frustrations from the racism overt and cover he's been absorbing all book long come flying out of his fist. One of the most successful examples of literary catharsis I've ever seen!

I'm so glad you overcame your aversion to read the series. Like tons of others here, I need to catch up on the books from the new publisher.

From: [identity profile]

I love love love this series. There's a new one out in a few months.

From: [identity profile]

I think it was [ profile] osprey_archer who first got me interested in these. I still haven't read them, but I'd like to.

From: [identity profile]

I think so too--I like what you said about even minor characters suggesting whole complete backstories.

From: [identity profile]

I hope you give it a try! They do have bleak spots, but on the whole the balance is more toward the people who are trying to help and look after each other. And the worldbuilding (is that the right word for historical fiction?) - the period detail is amazing: there's so much of it, but it never feels info-dumpy because it's so well-mixed into the narrative.

It's not my period so I can't comment too much on the accuracy, but there was only one thing in the whole series that strained my disbelief, and I kind of give her a pass on that because if I had the chance to work Edgar Allen Poe into a mystery story, I'd probably take it too.
ellarien: bookshelves (books)

From: [personal profile] ellarien

I love this series. I think I was wary of it at first, but I picked up the first one cheap from a remainder table and after that I was hooked. Just last night I stayed up way too late finishing the last-but-one. I already have the next one, Crimson Angel, which came out here a few weeks ago.

Of course I had to take one as plane reading when I went to New Orleans in 2005 (pre-Katrina). Unfortunately it was the opera one, which isn't the best, but it was still interesting to compare 21st-century reality with the 1830s version.

From: [identity profile]

Thanks for your review. I love historical fiction, so I think I'll add this to my reading list.

From: [identity profile]

Kind of reminds me of my reaction to Lincoln: I went into it expected Very Serious History, but while that was certainly present, I didn't realize how funny it would be. Lincoln told stories! Long, rambling, jokey stories that he kept interrupting by laughing at his own tale! I don't know for sure if that's historically true, but (like Daniel Day-Lewis' rather high-pitched and reedy performance) it's the sort of element I think wouldn't be included unless it fell into the category of "no, really, you don't think this is true, but it totally was."

From: [identity profile]

ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST. i'm so looking forwards to finding out what's your favorite installment is going to be.

From: [identity profile]

I think I spent my teenage years reading way too many giant tomes of court intrigue fantasy (where everyone has three titles and also a nickname in a made-up language and their family trees prove essential to the plot) to ever be bothered by giant cast lists again. But ha, that's definitely not a skill set anyone else has any reason to have.

A lot of the Ben January novels are slow at the beginning, and then hit a point where they take off and become major page-turners (Hambly actually calls it the "boss battle", when she talks about her writing on Facebook). I think my favor climatic scene might be the one that involves pirate treasure hunters, a slave rebellion, a giant alligator, and leprosy (all at once!) converging during a major hurricane.

From: [identity profile]

AWESOME. Leprosy converges! (Why don't I have a leprosy tag? It's probably subsumed into body parts: no noses.)

I read all those books too but I never really got the hang of it. My quintessential experience with the genre:

Lord Alamand D'Alaric of Feillette D'Mancy (nicknamed the Rose of L'Orange D'Homard La Rue): "Lilianette D'Courcey Faumont was my mother too!

Everyone: "My God! Then YOU are the true heir to the throne!"

Me: "Who's Lilianette?"

Me: "...and who's Lord Alamand?"

Me: (flips through pages, eventually discovers that he was a major character who was mostly referred to by his middle name, which is Jacques.)

Me: "Didn't Jacques die two chapters ago?"

Me (flips through pages, discovers that there were two Jacques.)

From: [identity profile]

Hahaha, exactly! I'm pretty sure I have actually read this book.

From: [identity profile]

I had that problem pretty badly (although not quite as badly as the book you describe) with the Goblin Emperor. Fantastic book, but the naming/titling conventions are so very odd (and made up) that it took me till the second read-through to figure out who half the characters were. Pretty much the only one I was certain of was the main character...

From: [identity profile]

You’d think I’d have less trouble with movies, but I once was startled when the black-haired, blue-eyed protagonist of a war movie reappeared after his tragic death. I then realized that there were two black-haired, blue-eyed soldiers

I don't remember what movie it was, but I saw one sometime in the last few months in which I was thoroughly confused because there were two scruffy white guys in it and I had to wait for other characters to say their names in every single scene because I couldn't tell them apart if they weren't standing next to each other.

From: [identity profile]

Oh man, I really love this series. I'm on book 7 (?) right now, and they just keep getting better. And as someone else said, the pirate treasure book is really quite fantastic. For that matter, I actually have yet to read a Hambly book that isn't good.

From: [identity profile]

The "pirate treasure" one I was referring to is 'Wet Grave', the sixth book, though the brand-new one, 'Crimson Angel', actually also centers around a hidden treasure (though from a sugar plantation instead of from pirates, unfortunately. Pirates make everything better).

From: [identity profile]

Yes, Wet Grave is the one. And the best thing about it is actually not the action, but how much payoff there is from previous books-- some really good character moments in there that are wholly dependent on character bits that have built up over the course of the five previous.

From: [identity profile]

Oh, and I could give you minor summaries of the books in the series, if you want. Wikipedia has fairly good ones, but they spoil several important developments for the characters.
ext_29896: Lilacs in grandmother's vase on my piano (Default)

From: [identity profile]

I love these books.

Also, the multiple-names thing *really* got to me in Russian novels - there was one time I almost made a cheat sheet. *wry grin*

From: [identity profile]

I love these books, and love it that she's still continuing the series. I read a review one time that pointed out that Hambly had both the most high-brow ("Free Man of Color") and most low-brow (a Star Wars novel) books out from her publisher that month. I love how she can rock anything she writes.

It's interesting how Hannibal appears to be a stand-in for George Effinger. His appearance in the novels mirrors his part in her life. (I was having a drink with Joe and Gay Haldeman at a World Fantasy one time and Joe mentioned he's just taught one of the Benjamin January books in a class at MIT. I pointed out the Hannibal/George connection and he said, "You're right! I wish I'd seen it before I taught the book.")
ext_14419: the mouse that wants Arthur's brain (Default)

From: [identity profile]

I once was startled when the black-haired, blue-eyed protagonist of a war movie reappeared after his tragic death. I then realized that there were two black-haired, blue-eyed soldiers.

I used to do this all the time. :) I might be getting better since in my job we have training on smaller facial characteristics to look for (shape of eyebrows, hairline, lines around the mouth, angle of jaw), but I still think it's just stupid of casting directors to cast people who have similar looks at all in the same show, it makes it too haaard! I'm better at recognizing the same character in print, but only because I can stop and check and go back when I get confused. Harder to do that when watching a movie.

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