Free Man of Color (Hambly)

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
Booklist


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

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