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)
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