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