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A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly

A Free Man of Color (original 1997; edition 1997)

by Barbara Hambly

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6832413,982 (3.9)2 / 141
Title:A Free Man of Color
Authors:Barbara Hambly
Info:New York : Bantam Books, 1997.
Collections:Read but unowned

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A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly (1997)


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Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
My book club selection for this month.

Previously (and many years ago) I'd read a few of Hambly's early fantasy books, and not been overly impressed - they were OK, but didn't transcend any of the genre standards. After reading 'A Free Man of Color' at a friend's recommendation, I can confirm that yes, Hambly definitely improved over time.

Aside from a few suggestions that voodoo curses and/or protective charms may be efficacious, the book does not have fantasy elements - it's historical fiction. Benjamin January is the titular 'free man of color.' Of African heritage and raised in New Orleans, he is both a trained surgeon and an accomplished musician. Recently returned to his home town, after having spent the past few years in France, where he was accorded a certain degree of respect, he's experiencing a great deal of 'culture shock' in adjusting to the inferior status he holds in New Orleans. And the racism in Louisiana is getting worse, as the region's French culture is diluted by an influx of boorish men with an 'American' identity and an assumption that anyone with dark skin deserves nothing more than to be enslaved.

The reader has to ask why January would stay in such an inhospitable environment. Hambly strives to answer the question: January is fleeing his grief over the death of his wife; he feels an obligation to friends and family; he has a sense of 'belonging' and 'home' tied to New Orleans. I didn't find all these reasons fully convincing. I myself would've been outta there in a hot second. But I could accept that someone else might feel differently, and might've behaved as January does here.

The plot itself is a standard mystery/investigation: During a courtesans' ball, a woman is found murdered. As the victim was a woman of mixed race, and of 'low moral standing' to boot, the first reaction is to sweep the incident under the closest convenient rug. Benjamin January, with an innate sense of justice, doesn't allow that to happen. However, soon afterwards he realizes that his attempt to do the right things may not have been in his self-interest. He was one of the last people to see the victim alive, and it'd be far easier to pin the crime on a black man than to investigate a crime which was probably committed by a white man, and one likely highly placed in society, at that. January's only hope to avoid being arrested may be to try to solve the crime himself, in order to clear his name.

But as he looks into what may have happened and who may have had a grudge against this woman, things only get more complicated. For she wasn't a particularly nice person, and the list of people who may have held something against her only gets longer, the more details emerge...

The solid mystery plot is raised from 3 to 4 stars by the meticulous and well-incorporated historical and social details; which make for fascinating reading - and also by the satisfying yet bittersweet ending. There were several 'easy outs' the author could have taken in finishing up the story - and she opted for none of them, resulting in a much better book than this might've been.

I'd definitely read more in this series. ( )
  AltheaAnn | Feb 9, 2016 |
2015 Reading Challenge: A book set somewhere you've always wanted to visit
  LaMala | Jun 7, 2015 |
Story was a little draggy and not really my cup of tea, but it was a good plot, good main character and interesting look at the 1830's in New Orleans and the ridiculous caste system in place which depended on how much white blood a person had. ( )
  AliceAnna | Aug 10, 2014 |
Benjamin January is a free man, of color, in the 1930's. He has been in France, completed a medical degree, and is an accomplished musician. Therefore, it is quite a shock for him when he returns to his native New Orleans and the changes in attitude which have occurred in the twenty years he has been away. In spite of his education, he must earn his living as a music tutor and a piano player. When he is present at a ball where a prominent woman of questionable repute is murdered, and it becomes apparent that he was the last person known to see her alive, he realizes just how precarious his freedom and respect is. Now he must unearth the true killer and hope it isn't a white man to keep his own head out of a noose.

This book is a good mystery, the clues were there for the reader, but one had to work for them. The distractions and red herrings were well done. I am glad to have read this, because it is informative of a time and place and culture which is very foreign to me. However, it did feel like a bit of a slog. There was so much information which needed to be conveyed so the reader would be able to have even a glimpse into that time, place and the people there. I found it all so, so dark, looking into the morass of the human heart. That desire which is always present to find someone who is weaker than yourself to put down. It is very ugly, and overwhelmed me to the point that the story was painful. So, I can't say I enjoyed this book. I will say that it seems well researched and is well written, the story and characters are well drawn, and I would recommend it to anyone who didn't already struggle with depression over the human condition. ( )
1 vote MrsLee | Mar 16, 2014 |
This book is the first in the Benjamin January series. It is a historical mystery set in 19th-Century New Orleans.

When a beautiful, but viscious octoroon is murdered, January, a free black piano player/surgeon is the primary suspect, and when officials don't seem much interested in clearing him, he investigates the murdser on his own. He also covers for a pretty, young widow who was a former piano student, sticking his neck out and putting his own life at risk. ( )
  bookwoman247 | Sep 28, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Barbara Hamblyprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Seder, JasonCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Had Cardinal Richelieu not assaulted the Mohican Princess, thrusting her up against the brick wall of the carriageway and forcing her mouth with his kisses, Benjamin January probably wouldn't have noticed anything amiss later on.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0553575260, Mass Market Paperback)

In Barbara Hambly's rich and poignant thriller, it's 1833 and Ben January--a man of mixed blood making his living as a musician because he's not allowed to practice surgery--is back home in New Orleans after years of freedom in Paris. Trying to walk a caste line more complicated than India's, January risks his precarious position to investigate the killing of a young woman who--like his own younger, lighter half-sister--is the mistress of a wealthy white man. What has changed most in New Orleans while Ben was away is the influence of the white Americans: rough, ignorant, instinctively racist. Only one of these--a policeman named Abishag Shaw--seems to understand that January is at least as smart and valuable as he is, and even he at times appears to be ready to side with the white majority and pin the crime on Ben.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:05:51 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"A romantic suspense novel set in 19th century New Orleans. 'Benjamin January, a free Creole with dark brown skin, has returned to this society after living in Paris for more than a decde. 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.'" Libr J. "A few suspenseful moments not-withstanding, this isn't an action-packed or suspenseful whodunit. Rather, it's a richly detailed, telling portrait of an intricately structured racial hierarchy." Booklist.… (more)

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