A couple of months ago in a thread about book recommendations on Realms Beyond kjn said he thought Barbara Hambly hadn’t really found her voice until “Bride of the Rat God” and then the historical mysteries she wrote after that (by which I think he meant the Benjamin January books). Which I thought was interesting, because I’ve read several of Hambly’s books (including “Bride of the Rat God”) and enjoy them a lot but I haven’t actually read any of the Benjamin January series or indeed anything more recent than “Bride of the Rat God”. The ones I’ve read are mostly portal fantasies, published in the 80s & 90s. So when I saw “Ran Away” turned face out at the library and noticed the cover said it was “The new Benjamin January novel” I picked it up to read.
Benjamin January is a free black man, the son of slaves, who lives in New Orleans. This book is mostly set in 1837 (with an extensive flashback to Paris in 1827). He’s trained as a surgeon, but makes his living as a musician because in that time & place white people don’t like black people being medics. I assume the earlier books give some indication of how come he has the medical training and the rest of his good education in the first place – it’s not the subject of this book. There’s a few things like that which reminded me I was reading the most recent book in an established series, but in general it stands alone well.
The story opens with January being told by his mother that “the Turk” has murdered his two concubines that morning in a jealous rage – it’s the gossip of the town, with lurid details & everyone knows it must be true that a heathen like that would do such a thing. January insists that it can’t be true, he knows the man and knows he’s not like that. And then we’re off into a flashback to 1827 when January lived in Paris with his first wife, a North African ex-Muslim woman. Because of his medical training his wife enlists his help on behalf of one of the concubines of the Turk, who it turns out has been poisoned by one of the Turk’s other wives. When she then vanishes January is the person the senior wife of the harem comes to to help find her and make sure she’s safe. A bit hard to write that plot-starting summary because I don’t want to give away too much of how it works out. But suffice to say that this flashback (which is the first half of the book) demonstrates that indeed the Turk is not the sort of man to murder the concubines. The second half of the book returns to 1837, and January’s efforts to find out who did murder the dead girls and why. The two mystery plotlines are well done, I didn’t find the answers to them obvious at the beginning but when the story got there they felt right. They also linked together well, with things from the first half showing up in the second half (and something that had niggled at me as being unresolved in the first bit was in fact a minor plot point later 🙂 ).
When I think of Hambly’s books I think of well-drawn, solid feeling characters who are often square pegs in round holes and intricate societies where there are hierarchies & manners that keep people reminded of their place and role. (I’m not sure I phrased that well, hopefully I’ve got the idea across). This book is no exception to that – and in some ways is more unsettling because this is an actual society from history and people like January or any of the other main characters will’ve actually existed.
One of the themes of this book seems to be how all the different sub-cultures of “society” are actually much the same under the skin, and how petty all their reasons to feel superior to each other are. Like how much the high-society girls looking for husbands at the Paris balls are the same as the coloured demi-mondaine of New Orleans being presented to society to meet white “protectors”. And how the concubines of the Turk aren’t worlds away from these black mistresses of those white men, despite the latter despising the lives of the former. Or there’s the slave woman who is very clearly sniffy about January’s social status because he’s a darker black than her but he’s a free man and she can be (and has been) bought and sold with no respect for any of her wishes. And the French of New Orleans don’t mix with the Americans, the old aristocracy of France are “above” the “new people” who gained status with Napolean or in the Revolution. Having just read some 1930s stories I was particularly struck by how this is a book with many racist, classist and sexist characters, but it manages not to be a racist, classist or sexist story. People are people, good or bad or indifferent because of who they are personally not because of some stereotype.
I’m not sure I’d say that this is better than the earlier Hambly I’ve read (tho it’s been a while since I read the others), but I would definitely say it’s as good. She’s one of my favourite authors, and clearly I now need to buy everything else she ever wrote – I have about a dozen books already, but there seem to be at least as many others I’ve not yet bought, including the Benjamin January series 🙂