Slavery shaped Benjamin January’s life; he and his sister Olympe were born slaves, before his mother was purchased as a mistress. It’s been a prominent part of the background of previous books. But it takes center stage here, when the man Ben least wants to meet again— Fourchet, his cruel previous owner— offers to hire him to go undercover as a slave on his plantation, to investigate a murder and possible brewing slave rebellion.

It’s the last thing Ben wants to do. But he needs the money. More importantly, if he doesn’t do it, the slaves may well end up suffering even more. (A major theme of the book is that even people who are living in horrible conditions often still have a lot left to lose, and desperately cling to what little they have.) And so Ben ends up back on the plantation, thirty years after he left. Though his act of (largely) altruism is intended to make sure the status quo doesn’t get even worse rather than to literally rescue anyone, it reminded me of Harriet Tubman returning to the scene of her worst nightmares to take others to freedom.

Hambly doesn’t stint on the physical horror of slavery, but focuses more on the psychological aspects— families ripped apart, human beings treated as non-human, and the pervasive terror coming from the knowledge that one’s master can do absolutely anything to you or your loved ones at any time. It’s also one of the best depictions I’ve come across of how people work to keep their humanity, maintain loving relationships, and find moments of happiness and humor in the absolute worst imaginable circumstances.

While I hesitated to recommend Fever Season, I would definitely recommend this if you can cope with the setting. The overall mood is way less depressing, because the story is more action-based, Ben has more inner strength and hope, and there’s more emphasis on relationships. Not to mention a way more uplifting ending. And a fair amount of secret banter between Ben and Hannibal, who is impersonating his owner. The action climax is a bit incongruous given the relentless realism of the plantation life that makes up most of the book, but as an action climax, it’s spectacular. Abishag Shaw has a smallish but absolutely wonderful part in this; sadly, Rose is barely in it. Hopefully she’ll be more prominent in the next book.

This is a very dark book (due to inherent qualities of the subject matter, not due to cement truck plot twists), but also one where the bright spots shine very brightly by contrast. It has the most moving and happiest ending of any of the books so far. Where many novels are fantasies of empowerment, in some ways this is a fantasy of justice. It’s explicitly stated to be limited to the characters we meet (and not all of them), not to mention being fictional. But it’s satisfying nonetheless. In real life, some slaves did escape, and some masters did meet well-deserved bitter ends. That was the exception rather than the rule, of course. But sometimes it’s nice to read about the exceptions. When you’re dealing with devastating injustice, both now and then, you need hope as well as rage.

Sold Down the River (Benjamin January, Book 4)
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio

Comment contains spoilers for the book


Where many novels are fantasies of empowerment, in some ways this is a fantasy of justice. It’s explicitly stated to be limited to the characters we meet (and not all of them), not to mention being fictional. But it’s satisfying nonetheless. In real life, some slaves did escape, and some masters did meet well-deserved bitter ends. That was the exception rather than the rule, of course. But sometimes it’s nice to read about the exceptions. When you’re dealing with devastating injustice, both now and then, you need hope as well as rage.

Yes! And obviously I couldn't say this earlier without spoiling you, but this is why I didn't find Sold Down the River nearly as devastating as Fever Season (well, that and the fact that Ben has a fairly well-established support system by now). It ends on a very "up" note, and while it's true that it's not the most likely outcome for those characters, it is at least possible, and they got about the happiest ending that they could get in their (hopelessly fucked up) place and time.

Also, for all that he's not in it much, I agree about Shaw being an absolute delight in this one, especially his solution to the missing-slave "problem".
Edited Date: 2014-09-15 09:25 pm (UTC)
kore: (lumina book - Bram Stoker's Dracula)

From: [personal profile] kore


I've loved every book in the series so far (I actually didn't find Fever Season terribly bad, probably because I was spoiled like hell for the villain/ending) but I keep backing away from this one because Ben going back to the plantation just seems like such a waking nightmare. But the ending sounds good....
kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore


I think I was OK with FS because I was spoiled as hell but that also added a whole new level of horror because when you know who the villain is while reading that book it's really, really fucking creepy. (Altho I could see how someone could read it cold and not suspect that person, until the music lesson scene probably. It was quite well-done.)
kore: (lumina book - Bram Stoker's Dracula)

From: [personal profile] kore


The crushingness also got exponentially multiplied when Ben and Rose were defending (villain) -- I love both of them, but I was just like "ARGH, no! Run away! Don't let this person get their claws into you!"

From: [identity profile] zahrawithaz.livejournal.com


I love this mystery series. It is, like most series, a bit uneven, but Sold Down the River is my personal favorite and possibly one of my favorite literary treatments of slavery. I actually feel that the first 4 books make a self-contained whole, and SDR is a satisfying conclusion to the quarter.

One caveat: I find Ben going undercover on the plantation way too implausible. I react to it as a sci-fi reader who is willing to accept a ridiculous premise if it leads to a good story, interesting exploration of ideas, etc., which this book does in spades.

I'm also very fond of Wet Grave, though Days of the Dead is probably my least favorite. And I haven't read the most recent couple, so thanks for reminding me I need to get on that!

From: [identity profile] asakiyume.livejournal.com


When you’re dealing with devastating injustice, both now and then, you need hope as well as rage.

What a true statement.

Edited Date: 2014-09-15 06:39 pm (UTC)

From: [identity profile] egelantier.livejournal.com


i can barely live through this book, but this scene in the end, when ben finds out about his father, is everything and then some. so much love.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


That scene was so moving.

But I was so happy when I got to the part where Shaw shrugged and was all, "Welp, guess the slaves all drowned, no point looking for them." I'm assuming Shaw is abolitionist. That shouldn't be surprising considering his relationship with Ben, but I didn't assume it previously because the series is so acute about how people can have an exception for one particular person they like, but still be completely prejudiced against all the rest. ("He's not like other black people.")

Also, I took great satisfaction in the incredibly horrible death of Fourchet. I know that satisfaction is a bit problematized in the book, but seriously, it served him right. I bet Hambly searched for "most excruciating poison."

From: [identity profile] egelantier.livejournal.com


THIS IS MY HANDS DOWN FAVORITE SHAW BIT IN THE WHOLE SERIES. ahem, sorry. seriously, besssssssssst scene even, and he's so offhandedly blatant about it, i can't even.

i don't think he's an abolitionist, per se, i just think that slavery as a concept offends his mountain-bred soul, and doesn't mesh well with his concept of justice. and shaw, while being very practical about law, is really about the justice; that's why ben is drawn to him, i think.

fuck yeah, fourchet got all he deserved, and some, and that was viciously satisfying. it is really a wish-fulfillment book, in many ways, and i'm glad for it; i think a more realistic approach would've just like... not weighted out the rest of the book.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


I really want a movie of this book, just so I can see Shaw breaking down the door with a rifle in one hand and the guy whose throat he just cut in the other! And firing a rifle in each hand! (I think that's physically possible if you don't care if you actually hit anything.) Maybe John Woo could just direct that one scene.

Other things I loved: the handkerchiefs, and the running thread of Odyssey references, with the river replacing the wine-dark sea.

The explanation of why everyone's guns kept misfiring.

From: [identity profile] egelantier.livejournal.com


BECAUSE HANNIBAL IS SNEAKY AND WILY, THAT'S WHY :D :D :D

(and ben gets to freak out about hannibal dying TWICE in like three hours, this was v. v. pleasing too).

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


I know! I love how clear-eyed Ben is about all the possible ways Hannibal could not come through for him, but it never occurs to him that Hannibal could have been waylaid by the bad guys. (Understandably, since he's still thinking the villains are essentially powerless to harm anyone not actually on the plantation.) Next thing he knows, he's madly digging for a shallow grave.

I also like the part where Ben briefly fantasizes that he's some hero about to be rescued by a beautiful maiden. Considering who's actually available to do any rescuing, that make Hannibal the dark-eyed maiden!

From: [identity profile] yhlee.livejournal.com


I remember the grace and beauty of the ending. Now I really want to reread this one (and the ones before).

From: [identity profile] oracne.livejournal.com


This is one of the best in the series.
sovay: (Haruspex: Autumn War)

From: [personal profile] sovay


It’s the last thing Ben wants to do. But he needs the money. More importantly, if he doesn’t do it, the slaves may well end up suffering even more.

This sounds like a fascinating noir hook on which a story with very different concerns from film noir hangs. How necessary is it to have read the previous novels for the emotional arc to work?

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


I would say you should at least read Graveyard Dust, the one immediately before it. You really need to know the social setting Ben normally lives in, his family, and his friends to get the full impact of what it means to him to return to the plantation. Also, the climax really depends on knowing who Ben's buddies from New Orleans are.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


I hadn't thought of it till you said "noir," but there are actually a lot of resonances with the more socially conscious brand of noir, in which the crime and its investigation exposes the rot at the core of society, which is often mirrored by the rot hidden within the family - Chinatown, say, or anything by Walter Mosley or Ross MacDonald.
sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)

From: [personal profile] sovay


the more socially conscious brand of noir, in which the crime and its investigation exposes the rot at the core of society, which is often mirrored by the rot hidden within the family - Chinatown, say, or anything by Walter Mosley or Ross MacDonald.

Agreed that there is both a socially conscious and a socially subversive strain of noir, but so often one of the hallmarks of the genre is that there is not justice, as in Chinatown. The exposé changes nothing; the system is brutally corrupt and there's nothing to do about it but shrug and walk away.* In Sold Down the River, it sounds as though the system is brutally corrupt (as historically it was), but no one shrugs and walks away. Investigating the crime exposes something that can be changed, even if it's just a few people's lives.

* I realize I may be conflating noir with neo-noir, because a lot of classic noir is very concerned with justice, even if it's just playing by the rules of the Production Code—no one ever gets away with anything. But if your antiheroes are sympathetic to the audience, then after a while that's really depressing. And it reinforces that the points of light in this world are so small as to make little to no difference after all.

From: [identity profile] sartorias.livejournal.com


Hmmm this might be one to try. (I have to admit, this series has had zero attraction for me as yet)

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


I like it because it has really fantastic characterization and relationships, and that the main characters are good people doing their best in an incredibly unjust world. I also like how willing it is to let complicated social systems and relationships be complicated. Also, there's a surprising amount of banter.

That being said, I think the series is way too dark for you. It's about being an oppressed minority in an extremely oppressive setting. And the emotional arcs in this one depend on knowing the character relationships and background from the previous book. In particular, why the ending is so moving and redemptive only works if you've read previous books and know what it means to the main character.

From: [identity profile] sartorias.livejournal.com


I suspect you're right. Right now I'm doing a lot of reading about the Bolshevik Revolution, and knowing what lies ahead for Russia is about as much dark as I can handle. But I will keep these in mind--many attest to their quality.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


Just because a work is high-quality doesn't mean you'll enjoy it, or that you should feel obliged to read it. There's a whole subgenre of high-quality novels about the Partition of India, and I intend to read none of them. (Also for reasons of depressingness.)

From: [identity profile] sartorias.livejournal.com


This is true! No, that is a period of history I don't want to read novels about, either.
kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore


I agree S. doesn't have to read it if she doesn't want to, but there's just one other thing I want to mention re reccing this series, and it is: the writing is amazing. Hambly's writing is often just flat-out beautiful, for me. The characters are great, the dialogue is great, the social milieu is fascinating, the setting is like another character (without being cliched), but a lot of time while reading the books I just stop to reread the prose because it's just that good.

From: [identity profile] wordsofastory.livejournal.com


I'm glad you enjoyed it! This is such a hard book to read, but the ending makes up for it, to me.

I think "fantasy of justice" is an excellent way to describe the series as a whole. Some books less than others, maybe ('Fever Season' in particular is a bit constrained by historical reality) – but in general there's always that element.

(And yes, Rose is much more in the next book.)
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