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A Free Man of Color (Benjamin January, Book 1) Mass Market Paperback – June 1, 1998

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Product Details

  • Mass Market Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam; First Edition edition (June 1, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0553575260
  • ISBN-13: 978-0553575262
  • Product Dimensions: 1.3 x 4.2 x 7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (96 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #195,100 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Library Journal

With this historical novel, Hambly departs from her usual work in the sf/fantasy genre (e.g., Traveling with the Dead, LJ 8/95). 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. Recommended for larger libraries.?Shirley Coleman, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., Mich.
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Well written, excellent characters, interesting historical and cultural detail.
Jennifer T Mai
Barbara Hambly is an extremely gifted writer capable of writing atomospheric prose full of emotion and marvelously descriptive.
This is the 2nd book I have read by Barbara Hambley and I am going right back to get the next book in this series.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

35 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Patrick Burnett on October 14, 1997
Format: Hardcover
At first, it is difficult to understand what Barbara Hambly was attempting with "A Free Man of Color". Typically, when an author chooses an historical setting, he or she is doing one of two things, bringing light to the past through the artifice of fiction or revealing the present through the veil of the past. If Hambly was doing the former, she did a fine job of evoking old New Orleans. The book takes place during a time when The City That Care Forgot was losing her tenuous grip on her past and becoming a unique product of American industrialism and European traditions. The Civil War was still thirty years in the future and New Orleans, for all the destruction and disease she had seen, for all the blood spilled in her streets still had an air of innocence. This is the story of Benjamin Janvier, recently widowed and returning to New Orleans after 16 years in Paris. This places Benjamin in the unique position of being able to contrast Paris, with it's lack of color distinctions, and New Orleans, with it's infamous "Code Noir" - the well-defined laws governing the behavior of "colored" people and their interaction with the French settlers, or Creoles. This also places the reader in the position of comparing the treatment of blacks in Janvier's day and their treatment today, which makes this something of the latter of the above kinds of novels. Is Hambly trying to tell an engaging and accurately detailed story set in the past? Or is she trying to poignantly underline current wrongs by speaking to us through the past? I'm not sure she is certain which story she wants to tell, which puts the reader in the awkward position of trying to figure it out for themselves.Read more ›
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By drdebs on January 14, 2002
Format: Mass Market Paperback
This book definitely falls into the "how did I miss this?" category. Barbara Hambly is an extremely gifted writer capable of writing atomospheric prose full of emotion and marvelously descriptive. When those gifts are in the hands of someone who can also craft a good mystery, watch out! I am a big fan of historical mysteries, but only if they ring true--if the author somehow manages to evoke the spirit of the times in every character. A Free Man of Color does that, transporting us to the socially confusing and racially diverse world of New Orleans in the decades before the American Civil War.
Hambly paints with remarkable accuracy all the shades and tones of Creole culture: from the French plantation owners down through the mixed race free people of color, and down to the black slaves. Her hero, Benjamin January, is not only a gifted musician but a Paris-educated surgeon, who returned to New Orleans after the death of his wife in Europe. He returns to the city as an insider/outsider, the perfect person to observe the actions of society. When a beautiful mixed race mistress to a wealthy Creole planter turns up at the annual Blue Ribbon Ball in New Orleans, January is there to observe, to analyze, and finally to solve the mystery of her death.
If you like vivid historical mysteries I think you will love this book!
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Loon on June 13, 2000
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Wow, what a strange book. It made me angry, because it was pretty much fact-based. Pity that busy monster, ManUnkind: we humans can sure talk ourselves into some crazy ways of life. Here we have whites who despise the blacks but will have loads of children by the quarter-blacks, who look down on the full-blooded blacks, who are all looked down on by 'octoroons.' I don't know which group to feel sorrier for, but the whites are certainly swallowing as big a load of bullcrap as they ever fed the slaves. Ben January is a 'colored' man who escaped to Paris, where he learned surgery and music and walked the streets as just another citizen. Returning to New Orleans, he finds he doesn't fit in anymore. He's lost the slave mentality, and as a result he stands out like a big black sore thumb. But he hasn't fallen into hatred, and he solves the mystery he falls into instead with a clear eye. Makes you proud to be a human, of whatever color.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Steve Hooley on June 6, 2000
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Ever wanted to go back in time? Just hop in the time machine and see the past? Read this; you'll be cured. Hambly leads us down a muddy path into New Orleans at the height of the slavery days, and shows it to us in all its stinking glory through the educated eyes of freeman Benjamin January; a Paris-educated 'colored' whose surgical training and skill on the piano mean little to the white inhabitants of the French-speaking city. January has fled Paris to escape the ghost of his cholera-slain wife, and is a cultured fellow who gives us a slightly modern viewpoint as he struggles to fit back into a world in which he is not allowed to look a white in the eye. Hambly starts with a glossary of the names used to distinguish degrees of prized white blood: octoroon, griffe, sambo. The rich planters all have octoroon or quadroon mistresses, who live in houses bought by their protectors through their mothers' negotiations, and who birth more octoroons and quadroons for the 'placee' system. The white and colored balls are held side by side, and the men circulate between wife and mistress all night. It's not a pretty picture, and January, from his vantage point as the pianist on the white side, sees it all ... all except the moment when a colored girl is strangled, and the blame begins to shift his way. January must solve the crime himself or be blamed for it, and risking slavery, voodoo, and humiliation along the way, solve it he does. Every character in this book, from the Prussian swordmaster Mayerling to the old scarfaced Ewe tribesman Lucius, is trapped in the web of their unsavory culture. It's a clear indictment of the human race; we should all be whipped for letting stuff like this go on.Read more ›
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