Book Review — A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly

WHAT’S PLAYING: Hugh Laurie “Ain’t Necessarily So”

This week’s book is A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly.

When beautiful and ruthless octoroon Angelique Crozat is found strangled to death in the midst of an opulent Mardi Gras costume ball, dark-skinned Benjamin January—physician, music teacher, and son of a former slave—soon finds himself the prime suspect in her murder. With his freedom and life at stake, January sets out to find the real killer. His quest will take him from the opulent mansions of rich white planters to the huts of voodoo-worshipping slaves, and through the dark streets of 1833 New Orleans in search of a murderer who is poised to strike again.

I’ve been a fan of Barbara Hambly since I read Dragonsbane. One of the things I admired most about her writing is her methodical attention to detail. A Free Man of Color is no exception. Hambly focuses on the delicate, twilit world of 1830’s New Orleans, managing to capture the city’s exotic strangeness, while maintaining an absolute sense of physical reality. The landed aristocracy and their colored mistresses celebrate Mardi Gras, completely oblivious to the squalor surrounding them. The period detail—fashion, food, manners, music, and voodoo—is rich and decadent, full of sights, textures, sounds and tastes of the city.

The prose is a bit clunky at times (“crimson with rage”, etc.), but Benjamin January shines as a good man in a bad situation, trying to do what is right in a society that classifies people according to an intricate scale of color and bloodline from mulatto to octoroon and everything in between.

Favorite Line/Image: “Phrasie, don’t be a fool.” Livia thrust herself into the fray, slapped Euphrasie loudly on her plump cheek.

Euphrasie fell back, opening her mouth to scream, and Livia picked up the water pitcher from the sideboard. “You scream and I dump this over you.”

Clisson, Odile, and Agnes Pellicot promptly retreated to the doorway, hands pressing their mountains of petticoats back for safety. January reflected that they’d all known his mother for thirty years.

Euphrasie, too, wisely forbore to scream.

Bottom Line: A sharp portrait of curiously nuanced class divisions.

Coming up next: The Siren by Tiffany Reisz

2 comments on “Book Review — A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly

  1. Janice Heck says:

    Another book to add to my TBR list. I need a vacation to read them all, but this one may move closer to the top of the list. Thanks.

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