Free Man of Color (Hambly)

A Free Man of Color: (Benjamin January series #1)
Barbara Hambly, 1997
Random House
432 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780553575262

Benjamin January has lately returned to New Orleans from Paris, where he's made his home for the last 16 years. In Paris, January was a surgeon; in New Orleans, his life is constrained by a rigid set of rules that control his every move. He is known as a "free man of color," but in 1833, that freedom is tenuous at best.

January has found a position playing piano at the Salle d'Orleans, where the Blue Ribbon Ball of this year's Carnival caps the season's revelry. The Blue Ribbon Ball, in New Orleans's strict caste system, is the quadroon ball, where the light-skinned, beautiful daughters of colored society dance with their white "protectors"—while their protectors' wives and families are at the subscription ball in the Theatre next door. From the safety of his piano bench, January is able to watch and comment upon the goings-on. But that detachment doesn't last.

The most beautiful—and the most poisonous—belle of the ball, the infamous Angelique Crozat, has infuriated everyone present, from the young suitor whose stutter she has publicly mocked, to the girls whose dresses she has purposefully made somewhat less than beautiful—including the widow of her late protector, who has violated every caste rule in order to confront her.

When Angelique is discovered, in a parlor of the Salle, strangled to death, January becomes embroiled in a pursuit of the killer—only to discover that the authorities are investigating him. Now he must run for his life, and find the culprit before he is caught and enslaved—or hung. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—August 28, 1951
Born—San Diego, California, USA
Raised—Montclair, California
Education—University of California, Riverside
Awards—Locus Award for Best Horror Novel; Lord Ruthven
   Award for fiction
Currently—lives in Los Angeles, California

Barbara Hambly is an award winning and prolific American novelist and screenwriter within the genres of fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and historical fiction. Her writing includes novels occurring within worlds of her own creation (generally occurring within an explicit multiverse), as well as within previously existing mythos (notably Star Trek and Star Wars).

Hambly was born in San Diego, California and grew up in Montclair, California. Her parents, Edward Everett Hambly Sr. and Florence Moraski Hambly, are from a coal-mining town in eastern Pennsylvania. She has an older sister, Mary Ann Sanders, and a younger brother, Edward Everett Hambly Jr. In her early teens, Hambly read and was transfixed by J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, and affixed images of dragons to her bedroom door. She early-on became interested in costumery, and has been a long-time participant in Society for Creative Anachronism activities. In the mid-1960s, the Hambly family spent a year in Australia.

Hambly has a Masters in Medieval History from the University of California at Riverside, completing her degree in 1975 and spending a year in Bordeaux as part of her studies. Her first novel to be published was Time of the Dark in 1982 by Del Rey. Previous to becoming a writer, Hambly chose occupations that allowed her time to write; all of her novels contain a biography paragraph with a litany of jobs familiar to her readers—high school teacher, model, waitress, technical editor, all-night liquor store clerk, and Shotokan karate instructor. Hambly served as President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America from 1994 to 1996. Her works have been nominated for many awards in the fantasy and horror fiction categories, winning a Locus Award for Best Horror Novel, Those Who Hunt the Night (1989) (released in the UK as Immortal Blood) and the Lord Ruthven award for fiction for its sequel, Travelling With the Dead (1996).

Hambly was married for some years to fellow science fiction writer George Alec Effinger before his death in 2002. She now lives in Los Angeles. Hambly speaks freely of suffering from seasonal affective disorder, which was undiagnosed for years.

Given Hambly's diverse portfolio, there are only a few themes that run throughout all of her novels.

She has a penchant for unusual characters within the fantasy genre, such as the menopausal witch and reluctant scholar-lord in the Winterlands trilogy, or philologist secret service agent in the vampire novels.

Her writing is filled with rich descriptions and actors whose actions bear consequences for both their lives and relationships, suffusing her series with a sense of loss and regret; Hambly's characters experience the pain of frustrated aspirations to a degree that is uncommon in most fantasy novels.

Though using many standard clichés and plot devices of the fantasy genre, her works depart from the norm through an exploration of the ethical implications of the consequences of these devices, and what their impact is for the characters, were they real people. In avoiding the "...easy consolatory self-identification of genre fantasy" (p. 449) and refusing to let her work be guided more explicitly by conventions and the desires of her audience, Hambly may have missed out on the remunerative success and acclaim that she is due.

Although magic exists in many of her settings, it is not used as an easy solution but follows rules and takes energy from the wizards. The unusual settings are generally rationalized as alternative universes.

Hambly heavily researches her settings, either in person or through books, frequently drawing upon her degree in medieval history for background and depth.

Benjamin January Mysteries
The series, beginning with A Free Man of Color, follows Benjamin January, a brilliant, classically educated free colored surgeon and musician living in New Orleans during the belle epoque of the 1830s, when New Orleans had a large and prosperous free colored demimonde. January was born a slave but freed as a young child and provided with an excellent education; he is fluent in several classical and modern languages and thoroughly versed in the whole of classical Western learning and arts. Although trained in Paris as a surgeon, he has returned to Louisiana to escape the memory of his dead Parisian wife. As he is a very dark-skinned black man, in Louisiana he cannot find work as a surgeon. Instead, he earns a modest living by his exceptional talent and skill as a musician.

Each title is an entertaining murder mystery with a complex plot and well-developed characters, and each explores many aspects of French Creole society. However, most tend to emphasize some particular element of antebellum Louisiana life, such as Voodoo religion (Graveyard Dust), opera and music (Die Upon a Kiss), the annual epidemics of yellow fever and malaria (Fever Season), fear of miscegenation (Dead and Buried), or the harsh nature of commercial sugar production (Sold Down the River). (Author bio from Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
In her breakout from fantasy and Star Wars novels, Hambly (Mother of Winter) chronicles the adventures of piano teacher and surgeon Ben January, a free man of color. The setting, 1833 New Orleans, is vivid and ornate. Riverboat dandies and roughshod frontiermen rub elbows with dueling gentlemen of the landed aristocracy as their splendidly gowned wives and colored mistresses celebrate Mardi Gras, oblivious to the squalor, fever and plague around them. Social and sexual mores are lax. Racial bigotry is the norm in a society that classifies people according to an elaborate scale of color and bloodline (octoroon, quadroon, musterfino, etc.). The plot is a whodunit involving the murder of Angelique Crozat, a beautiful but grasping octoroon who was the ex-mistress of a recently deceased Creole (white) planter. Back home after 16 years in Paris, January intervenes on behalf of Madeleine Dubonnet, a former piano student recently widowed by Arnaud Trepagier, the murdered woman's former patron. For his trouble, the ebony-skinned January becomes an unwitting scapegoat of the influential white suspects. Menaced by ruthless cutthroats, he must risk his freedom to absolve himself. Hambly pays rich attention to period detail fashion, food, manners, music and voodoo. Her characters, however, speak and think with decidedly modern accents, a departure from period verisimilitude that's easily justified on grounds of rhythm and pace. The tale lacks some of the moral gravity implied by the title, but it works as an escapist entertainment flavored liberally with the sights, textures, sounds and tastes of a decadent city in a distant time.
Publishers Weekly

With this historical novel, Hambly departs from her usual work in the sf/fantasy genre (e.g., Traveling with the Dead). Her new work is set in 19th-century Louisiana Creole society, where it was customary for a man to have a wife and also to keep a mistress in her own house. Benjamin January, a free Creole with dark brown skin, has returned to this society after living in Paris for more than a decade. He is trained as a surgeon, but in Louisiana, he makes his living playing the piano. Soon he is the main suspect in the death of a wealthy man's young mistress, found murdered at a ball. January spends the rest of the book gathering evidence in his defense with the help of his sisters and a host of other colorful characters he encounters on the run. The result is a complicated mystery that could have used more romantic involvement. —Shirley Coleman, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI
Library Journal

A few suspenseful moments notwithstanding, this isn't an action-packed or suspenseful whodunit. Rather, it's a richly detailed, telling portrait of an intricately structured racial hierarchy, which was to leave its mark on everyone—from Ben January to the white woman whose life he ultimately saves. —Stephanie Zvirin

Once again exercising her talent for gold stained description, Hambly moves from a stylish fin de siècle tale of Continental vampirism (Traveling with the Dead, 1995) to an equally stylish romantic suspenser set in New Orleans. The author focuses on the delicate, twilit world of color in New Orleans in the 1830s, striving to capture both the city's exotic strangeness and an absolute sense of physical reality. Despite rapt storytelling, though, Hambly's prose shows less care than her research, being replete with tired phrases ("crimson with rage," etc.). After 16 years abroad, widower Benjamin January, a very dark Creole, returns from Paris having earned his degree as a physician and, for Carnival, takes up playing piano in the band for the Blue Ribbon Ball at the Salle d'Orleans. This is the ball at which white gentlemen meet their mistresses of various skin shades, having parked their wives at the nearby Theatre d'Orleans. When Benjamin spots a former piano student, the virtuous, newly widowed, pure white Madame Madeleine Trepagier (nee Dubonnet), at the wrong ball, he tries to save her from disgrace. She's there to recover her family jewels from the city's worst, most malicious woman of color, Angelique Crozat, mistress of the late Armand Trepagier. But Angelique is strangled, robbed, and stuffed into a closet before Madeleine can talk with her. The murder investigation plunges us into the tangled nature of race relations in New Orleans, made even more complex by the fact that the free colored folk there now have to deal with the recently arrived imperial Americans, who don't recognize (as the French, the founders of the city, did) a colored entitlement to civil rights. What does it mean that the dead Angelique was wearing Madeleine's own handsewn white dress when she died? A sharp portrait of curiously nuanced class divisions transforms Hambly's latest into something far more than the modest melodrama it might otherwise have been.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
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Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for A Free Man of Color:

1. What is the significance of the book's title? In what way is it ironic?

2. What does Benjamin January find when he returns to America from Paris? For a man of color, how does Parisian culture differ from New Orleans culture? Has America changed in Benjamin's 16-year absence...or has he been changed by Europe?

3. Why is it important to the novel's plot that Benjamin be an outsider? As a writer, why might Barbara Hambly have placed him in Paris for 16 years prior to the beginning of the story?

4. In what ways do the newly arrived Americans differ from the older residents of New Orleans in their treatment of African-Americans.

5. Talk about the social hierarchy among people of color in New Orleans. What is the terminology used to describe those social distinctions?

6. Are you appalled by the quadroon balls—and the practice, commonplace among wealthy Creole men, of keeping a mistress? How precarious a life is it for the "placee"? How would you feel as the wife left on the plantation?

7. What made Angelique Crozat the most feared—and despised—mistress in New Orleans? What gave her power? What social code does Madame Madeleine violate in attending the quadroon ball to confron Angelique?

8. How and why is the murder evidence manipulated so that it points to Benjamin?

9. In mystery stories, clues are slowly revealed and sometimes lead readers (and characters) astray; twists and turns confound our expectations and serve to build suspense. As a mystery, does this novel deliver? Is it a suspenseful page-turner? Is the ending predictable...or surprising?

10. Are you more intrigued by the historical milieu—social and political—that Barbara Hambly limns for us or by the mystery itself? Which aspect of the novel was more gripping for you—Benjamin's predicament, as a good man caught in an evil world, or bringing Angelique's killer to justice?

11. Does the author do a good job of bringing antebellum New Orleans to life? Has she created a near palpable experience of time and place? What about her characters? Do you find them convincing and well-developed...or shallow and not particularly believable?

12. This is the first installment in the Benjamin January series. Does this book make you want to read the others? Why/why not?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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