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)
Benjamin January # 3! This one was way less grim than Fever Season. I realize that's easy to say, so I will give it an independent grimness rating.

Grimness of content: Medium. Racism and other isms, slavery, murder; child abuse is discussed but not shown.

Grimness of tone: Low. The subtitle is "a novel of suspense" and that accurately describes the tone. It's a very atmospheric mystery with some excellent action and really great characters. I loved everyone in this book, except for the villains and racists, obviously. Also, it contains a number of fun tropes, including hurt-comfort, creepy pottery, courtroom drama, spirit possession, and dodging alligators in the bayou. Plus Marie Laveau. The plot is very well-constructed and entertaining. And there's some very funny banter, plus a number of dramatic, alarming, and/or hilarious courtroom scenes.

Benjamin January is a devout Catholic and regularly prays for the soul of his sister Olympe, a voodoo practitioner. When Olympe is railroaded into jail for poisoning a man, mostly due to prejudice against voodoo, Ben gets on the case.

I really enjoyed the portrayal of voodoo. Hambly has an afterword discussing her research (she's a historian) and interviews with current practitioners where she gives a sense of how varied the practice and history is-- as is the case in any religion. From Ben's outsider/insider perspective, it's simultaneously alien and disturbing, familiar and enticing. It was a great way to convey how any religion is sustaining and ordinary for its followers, and exotic and weird to outsiders who don't understand it. Marie Laveau is one of my favorite characters in the series, and she naturally has a big part in this.

For the first time, supernatural forces appear as a (possibly) real force. The vivid scenes of spirit possession can be interpreted as simply the power of belief, but they make more sense if the Loa are objectively real. I liked the delicate balance of deniability at play through the whole book.

Since my favorite thing about this series is the characters, I'll do a check-in. Augustus Mayerling, the sword master who was one of my favorites from the first book, re-appears. Poor Hannibal is so sick with consumption that it was a relief to know while reading that he's still alive ten books later-- he spends most of the book either in bed or helping Ben with various tasks while trying not to pass out. (Someone said he's based on George Alec Effinger? Can you enlarge on that?) Rose makes some satisfying appearances, though I wish she was in the story more. Ben's awful mother Livia is still hilariously, deliciously catty. Olympe and her family have nice big roles-- I really like her, her husband, and her son Gabriel. And Ben has a really satisfying character arc.

Graveyard Dust
Benjamin January is working at a hospital during a yellow fever epidemic. (Yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitos, and due to being endemic in Africa, many people from Africa have some level of immunity. The characters in the book are aware of the latter fact but not the former, and have no useful treatment even if they did know the cause.) Meanwhile, both free people of color and slaves are mysteriously vanishing. In more cheerful news— well, cheerful for a while— Ben meets Rose, a free woman of color running a school for girls. Rose is a great character, and their slow burn romance is lovely.

That being said, the book as a whole was awesomely depressing. Not only was it set in a yellow fever epidemic, not only did it contain a brief but absolutely horrifying torture sequence, but both the epidemic and the horrifying torture were actual historic events, ie, they really happened to real people. Also, dead children. Truly grimdark, though not gratuitously given that it’s real history. Not even Ben and Rose’s charming courtship and politicly crude policeman Abishag Shaw’s delightful way with words ("But I do think I should point out to you that even if Miss Chouteau gets cleared of Borgialatin the soup herself, it ain't gonna win her freedom,") can lift the general gloom.

I have been told that this and Sold Down the River are the darkest books in the whole series. However, I already started Graveyard Dust, and it looks like Hambly is careful to get new readers up to speed on events, so Fever Season is probably skippable if you like the characters but want to miss the awesome depressingness.

Fever Season

Spoilers: Read more... )
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
The Silent Tower: The Windrose Chronicles (Book One); The Silicon Mage: The Windrose Chronicles (Book Two)

For the purposes of this exercise, I'm assuming that I know all about magic, other worlds, etc, and take that into consideration when assessing my clients.

Presenting Problem: Antryg Windrose is a slightly disheveled and eccentrically (but not bizarrely) dressed man with somewhat but not markedly tangential speech, and somewhat labile affect. When asked what brought him here today, he states that he is sad and frustrated over his inability to work magic in Los Angeles.

Client denies suicidal ideation, but says he has moderate anxiety over realistic fears of being returned to his home country for execution. Client still takes pleasure in daily life and current relationship, and is employed.

Personal History: Childhood abuse, torture and imprisonment by government, refugee. Client discusses this with insight and appropriate emotion.

Family Background: Client was raised by unrelated abusive man; has no contact with biological family.

Psychiatric/Treatment History: Previous diagnosis of paranoia proved to be incorrect: the client’s seemingly paranoid beliefs were objectively true. Client states cheerfully that “everyone knows he’s mad.” When asked if he believes that he’s mad, he is evasive, then states that he understands why others think he is. Exploration of this point produces several statements of “odd” beliefs regarding magic theory and the likely truth of superstitions. Client has no hallucinations, and possible “delusions” are within the realm of eccentricity.

Differential Diagnosis: Evaluated for depression. Client states that he has no history of mania, major medical condition, substance use, somatic symptoms, symptoms of major depression, or dysthymia. Client agrees that depression and anxiety developed in response to stress.

Consider adjustment disorder with mixed anxious and depressed mood. Rule out on basis of lack of sufficient impairment of social and occupational functioning.

Rule out PTSD (due to trauma history): client states that he has no symptoms of PTSD. Rule out schizophrenia: no symptoms. Rule out paranoid personality disorder: no symptoms. Rule out schizotypal PD: Client is indeed “odd.” But he lacks a pervasive pattern of social and interpersonal deficits due to oddness, is comfortable with close relationships, and is not distressed by being “odd.”

Client appears to be quite well-adjusted and emotionally healthy, especially given his background and circumstances.

Treatment Plan: Therapy for grief over loss of magic. Refer to orthopedist for consultation on injuries to client’s hands.

Axis I (clinical disorders): No diagnosis.

Axis II (personality disorders and mental retardation (note: yes, that is the term for diagnosis)): No diagnosis.

Axis III (general medical conditions): Injuries to hands from torture.

Axis IV (psychosocial and environmental problems): Loss of former career. Exposure to torture and imprisonment. Threat of execution. Refugee.

Axis V (GAF: Global Assessment of Functioning): 80. (Transient and expected reactions to psychosocial stressors.)

(GAF explanation: 100: Buddha. 50: Seriously affected by mental illness. 0: Catatonic or currently randomly shooting passersby.)

ETA: I'm going strictly by the book here. In real life, he probably would have gotten an "adjustment disorder" diagnosis so his treatment would qualify for insurance.
rachelmanija: (Book Fix)
( Jun. 4th, 2011 09:25 am)
Amazon is having a 99 cent - $2.99 sale on selected Kindle books. Here's a few that may be of particular interest:

Predators I Have Known, by Alan Dean Foster. Yes, the Pip and Flinx guy. Based on the sample chapter, this is an awesomely and absurdly alliterative account of real-world predators he has known, as he happily traveled around the world to get a look at tigers, sharks, etc. I have a weakness for that sort of thing, and bought it. $1.99.

San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris's nonfiction book, Smart on Crime. She has an interesting background - her family is Indian and Jamaican, and important politicians on the Indian side - and the sample chapter is well-written and thoughtful. Will probably be depressing, as she is in favor of prevention and the American system as a whole seems to have zero interest in that, but I got it anyway as she seems to have some ideas I haven't heard before. $2.99.

Grand Sophy, by Georgette Heyer. For the love of God, skip the horrible anti-Semitic pawnbroker chapter. Otherwise, a really funny romantic comedy with great characterization. $1.99.

The Prince of Tides, by Pat Conroy. I have an enormous, slightly guilty fondness for this lush, engrossing, often very funny, and utterly cracktastic Southern Gothic epic about a family whose eccentricity, dysfunctionality, and mental illness goes so far over the top that it reaches the stratosphere. The movie doesn't really do it justice. Contains some racist characters, rape, self-harm, and many other disturbing things. Also contains some really excellent food porn. $2.99. Cut for GIANT SPOILER )

ETA: Those Who Hunt the Night, by Barbara Hambly. Really excellent vampire novel for 99 cents... but comments say there are huge formatting problems. Caveat emptor. I'm mostly mentioning it to alert everyone that she wrote a third novel in the series, Blood Maidens, which I did not know of till just now. Very exciting!
This post was not only prompted by a remarkably stupid NY Times review of the "Game of Thrones" TV series, in which the reviewer thought the story was a polemic against global warming, claimed that women don't like fantasy, and further claimed that women do love sex, so the sex was gratuitously crammed in to please them.

It was also prompted by curious fact that while many of the most successful, and by successful I mean bestselling, writers of YA fantasy and sf are women writing under clearly female names, and most of the bestselling writers of urban fantasy are women writing under female names, most of the bestselling writers of epic/high fantasy are men or women writing under male or ambiguous names.

To quickly define terms, by "urban fantasy" I mean "Set in contemporary world much like ours, but in which magic and/or magical creatures exist. Typically involves romance, fighting evil, and/or detecting." By "epic fantasy," I mean "Set in non-contemporary world which is not just our world plus magic or an alternate history of our world, big sprawling stories, typically a series of fat volumes, typically involves a huge cast of characters, war, battles, monarchies, and politics. Typically set in a vaguely medieval period."

I have some questions for you all.

1. Am I correct that the bestselling writers of epic fantasy are typically male or writing under possibly-male names? I'm thinking of Robin Hobb (woman writing under possibly-male name), Patrick Rothfuss, George R. R. Martin, Robert Jordan, Brian Sanderson, Tad Williams, Terry Goodkind, Terry Brooks, etc.

I am under the impression that the female authors writing under clearly female names, like Kate Elliott, Katherine Kerr, are midlist or at least not hugely bestselling authors.

Anomalies: Jacqueline Carey - bestselling, I think, but clearly female. Gender of names may not be clear to readers: Sherwood Smith, Mercedes Lackey. I think Sherwood is considered a midlist writer, while Lackey is maybe in between midlist and bestseller?

2. Is epic fantasy really read more by men than by women? In general, women read far more than men do. Is epic fantasy an exception? I would love to see some actual figures here, because I honestly have no idea.

3. Do male or male-seeming epic fantasy authors get a bigger marketing push from the publishers? Are readers more willing to buy their books? Why is this different from urban fantasy and YA fantasy? (Maybe the latter are considered "less serious," because of the association with romance and teenagers, and so the proper province of women?)

(I don't even ask, "Is epic fantasy by women reviewed less?" because we already know that answer. All fiction by women is reviewed less than fiction by men. One of many statistical breakdowns to that effect here.)

ETA: A brief reading list of non-bestselling female writers of epic fantasy:

Sherwood Smith: Overview: Yo, epic fantasy authors. I'm real happy for you, and I'mma let you finish (uh, sorry, George R. R. Martin, I swear that was not a dig) but Sherwood Smith has already written one of the best epic fantasies of all time. OF ALL TIME.

Buy on Amazon: Inda

Kate Elliott: Cold Magic (The Spiritwalker Trilogy)

Mary Gentle: A Secret History: The Book Of Ash, #1

Michelle Sagara: Cast in Shadow (The Chronicles of Elantra, Book 1)

P. C. Hodgell: The God Stalker Chronicles

Judith Tarr: The Hound and the Falcon: The Isle of Glass, The Golden Horn, and The Hounds of God

Barbara Hambly: Dragonsbane: The Winterlands Series (Book One) (Note: This book stands on its own, and is a perfect work of art on its own. For the love of God, AVOID THE SEQUELS.)

Laurie Marks: Fire Logic (Fire Logic)

N. K. Jemisin: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (The Inheritance Trilogy)

Katherine Kerr: Daggerspell (Deverry Series, Book One)
I notice that many people have gotten curious about the original series after seeing the movie. There are also some quite good novels, many by writers known for original sf/fantasy. Here's a brief, non-comprehensive guide:

The Spirit of Wonder

Diane Duane did the best job of capturing the joy I felt when watching the series. You want to serve on her Enterprise – and her Enterprise probably has a place for you. Her crew is full of aliens, and her stories are all about the longing to breathe in the air of a strange new world.

Spock’s World intersperses a mission to Vulcan with a series of heartbreaking vignettes from Vulcan’s history; the alternation of the intense emotional content of the historical chapters with the more contained emotions of legal trial in the main story works beautifully. Spock's World (Star Trek)

In The Wounded Sky, the main character is a female giant transparent spider physicist, and the story is about the ultimate in exploring strange new worlds, a journey both inward and outward. Poignant and beautiful. The Wounded Sky

Enterprise: The First Adventure, by Vonda N. McIntyre. An epic of alien contact, featuring nice roles for all the main characters (even Janice Rand, who is mentored by Uhura), plus backstage comedy via an interstellar circus (!) and a very angsty and interesting original Vulcan character. Her new crew realistically fails to mesh, then gradually bonds; her aliens and descriptions of zero-g are lovely. Star Trek Enterprise The First Adventure

John M. Ford, as always a category unto himself

The Final Reflection
might as well be an original sf novel, as most of the characters are Klingons – and much more sophisticated and interesting Klingons than actually appeared on the show. A beautifully written and powerful story about power, politics, identity, and the costs and rewards of the choices we make. I can’t be more specific because I have no idea what was going on for a great deal of the story (let me know if you do!), but that’s true of most of Ford’s novels. The Final Reflection (Star Trek, No 16)

How Much For Just The Planet? A musical comedy. No, really. No, really. And it’s actually funny! It’s kind of a parody, but a very fond one. Kirk and the rest end up on a planet in which everyone acts like they’re in some old movie. Uhura lands in a film noir, and Kirk in a chorus line. There are hilarious film strips and an attack milkshake. Oh, just read it. How Much for Just the Planet? (Star Trek, No 36)

What if the Series Hadn't Been Totally Sexist?

My Enemy, My Ally,
by Diane Duane. A Romulan woman commander develops a prickly friendship with Kirk when they’re forced to adventure together for reasons of political intrigue. Lots of convincing detail about Romulan culture. My Enemy, My Ally There are sequels that aren't quite as good.

The Entropy Effect, by Vonda N. McIntyre. Time travel, Angsty!Fencing!Sulu, cool alien characters, several cool original female characters, and a rather slashy Kirk/Spock relationship: what’s not to love? The Entropy Effect (Star Trek)

Uhura’s Song, by Janet Kagan. This is another one that’s almost an original sf novel. When a plague hits, the cure involves going on a quest with a bunch of catlike aliens on their home world. There’s an original female character whom a lot of people call a Mary Sue, but all I can say is that I only wish Mary Sue was usually portrayed as Buckaroo Banzai, Trickster Archetype. Sweet and fun. Uhura's Song (Star Trek No 21)

Crossroad, by Barbara Hambly. A remarkably dark and often darkly funny story involving Lovecraftian horrors in spaaaaace. Christine Chapel is a major character, and her (non) relationship with Spock is developed convincingly and poignantly. Crossroad (Star Trek, Book 71)

Not My First Choice, But Worthwhile

Star Trek, Log One,
by Alan Dean Foster. Based on the animated series, this is nothing really special but nicely written.

The other novels by Barbara Hambly and Diane Duane are worth reading if you enjoy the series, as are Jean Lorrah’s. I note that Laurence Yep, Peter David, Joe Haldeman and Greg Bear all wrote novels for the original series; I don’t remember them, but they should be at least decent. I vaguely remember enjoying A. C. Crispin’s books.

Run Fast, Run Far

All the novels by Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath are unreadable, though the “Phoenix” ones do have Kirk naked (and tortured) for most of the book. Avoid, even if that’s a selling point.

The Tears of the Singers, by Melinda Snodgrass. Oh God. Uhura meets a tousle-haired, temperamental asshole of a hot genius musician with a heart condition that will kill him if he gets excited. A planet of baby seal aliens are being clubbed to death by Klingons for the jewels they weep at the moment of death, only their song is holding the universe together. Kirk drafts the musician because he’s the only one who can translate the song, and he dies operatically in Uhura’s arms after saving the world. A baby seal alien spontaneously sheds a single perfect tear of woe, which Uhura makes into a necklace. The Tears of the Singers (Star Trek, No 19)

Did anyone read Spock, Messiah? Was it as dire as it sounds? SPOCK, MESSIAH! (Star Trek)
Y: The Last Man # 6, by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra, is in stores now. I can pick up my copy on Friday, and I am extremely excited about this.

Barbara Hambly's Circle of the Moon, sequel to Sisters of the Raven, apparently received a stealth release in trade paperback. It's set in a Middle-East-esque, male-dominated fantasy land where for time immemorial, only men (and only some of them) have been able to work magic. Then one day, men lost their power, and women gained theirs. Cue social uproar. The second book stands on its own quite well if you haven't read the first, and gains extra interest from being past the period of male outrage and denial, and into the period where society is starting to shift to accomodate the new order. As is typical for Hambly, this is all wrapped in a sword-and-sorcery adventure that also functions as a mystery. Well-characterized (my favorites are the dandyish King Oryn and the beggar woman-turned-mage Pomegranate and her imaginary friend, a pig named Pontifer Pig), page-turny, and fun.

Yet another reminder that Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise series (described in my memoir; she's like a female James Bond, only much, much cooler) is back in print. I haven't seen it on the shelves much, but you can order all the books via If you are even remotely into pulp fiction or adventure novels about women who kick ass, I cannot recommend these too highly. She battles evil Siamese twins, she gets locked in a cage with a gorilla, she performs emergency appendectomies with one hand broken, she has affairs but not a boyfriend, and she has a lovely (non-sexual) relationship with her second in command, the cockney knife thrower Willie Garvin. They save each others' lives on a weekly basis, they spar literally and verbally, they amuse each other with humorous stories about their love lives-- it's charming.

On the manga shelves, supposedly Nana # 1 (HIGHLY recommended), Naruto # 8, and Fruits Basket # 12 are out now, but I haven't seen them yet. Maybe when I go to pick up Y.


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