Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Learned black surgeon Benjamin January returns from his debut as protagonist in "A Free Man of Color" (1997) to utilize his considerable skills in a graphic and compelling story based on events that transpired in 1834. The Paris-trained physician, still grieving for his recently deceased wife, is back in New Orleans after a 16-year absence and his now treating the victims of a raging cholera epidemic. But his position at Charity Hospital is precarious, accepted in his own mixed-race society, he is scorned by most whites. Now, even in the chaotic mayhem of an epidemic, January becomes aware of a disturbing fact: free people of color are disappearing. Are they dying? Are they being abducted to be resold as slaves? Although chronically fatigued from his multiple occupations (he gives piano lessons to eke out his income) and the demands of his eccentric family, he nonetheless manages to begin a discreet investigation that will involve some unique and idiosyncratic individuals including street people, con men and aristocrats. He even forms an unlikely alliance with a coarse, yet astute, white police lieutenant. January's queries are further complicated by the disappearance of his friend Cora, who may be implicated in theft and murder. Complex in plotting, rich in atmosphere and written in powerful, lucid prose, this compelling mystery holds its secrets until a horrifying, compelling finale.
Benjamin January, introduced in "A Free Man of Color" (LJ 6/1/97), returns in the second novel of this historical series set in early 19th-century New Orleans. The city is being ravaged by a violent and deadly disease known as Bronze John. January, a dark-skinned doctor and sometime musician, works day and night to care for the ill and dying while continuing to instruct his music students at their piano lessons. The doctor is unwillingly thrown into a dangerous predicament when a runaway slave asks for his help contacting her lover, a servant in the home of one of his music pupils. While author Hambly, a prolific sf/fantasy writer, renders the time period with careful detail, the story line is confusing and the numerous characters are difficult to follow. Unless the history of Louisiana is of specific interest or the previous novel was particularly popular, most libraries can pass. Beth Gibbs, P.L. of Charlotte & Mecklenburg Cty., NC
Cholera and worse strike New Orleans in 1833 in this hectic, dankly atmospheric sequel to "A Free Man of Color" (1997). Benjamin January, the freed slave who practiced surgery for six years in Paris but makes his living back home as a piano player, is already exhausted from tending the sick in Charity Hospital and arguing with the self-regarding white medicos about the efficacy of bleeding the tormented victims of "Bronze Jack" when he's accosted by Cora Chouteau, a manumitted servant who begs him to help her reunite with her new husband Gervase, the houseman who's disappeared into the house of his new masters, Delphine and Dr. Nicolas Lalaurie. Before January can tell Cora that he's arranged a meeting with Gervase, she's disappeared toopursued by a story that she poisoned her own master and mistress. Emily Redfern recovers sufficiently to accuse Cora of stealing $5,000 and a string of pearls; alleged rapist Otis Redfern is beyond recovery. The town's feelings, easy prey for any rumor that will deflect the citizens from the epidemic that everybody recognizes but the newspapers never mention, swiftly turn against Cora. But January has hardly a moment to spare for her when he's called to Rose Vitrac's ravaged little school, and from there to the side of his ailing, pregnant sister. Two patterns emerge from Hambly's darkly vivid swirl of subplots: Friends of January's family, especially dark-skinned freedmen, are disappearing, perhaps claimed by Bronze Jack, perhaps victims of a more human predator; and the gap between what the citizens know and what they admit, between the secrets they're privy to and the blame they're eager to castold Creole families to parvenus,landowners and slaves alike to freedmenwidens alarmingly. The shortcomings of Hambly's mystery plotthe culprits are too obvious and too manystrengthen her sense of a grim, miasmal conspiracy between human monsters and nature gone mad.
Read an Excerpt
In fever season, traffic in the streets was thin. Those who could afford to do so had left New Orleans with the ending of Lent; those who could not had all through the long summer hurried about their business as if Bronze John, as they called the sickness, were a creditor one could avoid if one kept off the streets.
Midday, the molten September heat raised steam from the water in the French town's cypress-lined gutters and the rain puddles in the soupy streets. Mephitic light filtered through clouds of steamboat soot from the levees and gave the town the look of a grimy but inexplicably pastel-walled hell. Only those whose errands were pressing walked the streets then.
So it took no great cleverness on Benjamin January's part to realize that he was being followed.
Charity Hospital, where he'd spent the night and all the morning among the dying, lay on the uptown side of Canal Street, the American side. It was against January's nature to spend more time on that side of town than was absolutely necessary, to say nothing of the fact that Americans seemed to regard all free persons of color as potential slaves, money on the hoof going to waste that could be going into their pockets in the big markets along Baronne and Levee Streets. Americans made no distinction, as the French were careful to do, between African blacks--be they slaves or freedmen--and the free persons of color whose parents had been both colored and white. Not, January reflected wryly, that it made a great deal of difference in his case.
But even in fever season, when men and women, black and white and colored, were only hands to hold off Bronze John from one another--to carry water and vinegar and saline draughts, to fan away the humming swarms of mosquitoes and flies--he felt uneasy uptown.
Maybe that was why he realized so quickly that someone was dogging his steps.
His head ached from twenty-four hours without sleep. His senses felt dulled, as if someone had carefully stuffed his skull with dirty lint soaked in the stinking fluids of the dying; his very bones weighed him down. His last patient that day had been a nine-year-old girl who'd walked the twelve streets to the hospital from the levee where she'd been selling oranges. Her mama, she said in English, before delirium claimed her, would whale her for not staying on to finish the day. The child had died before she could tell anyone who her mama was or where that lady could be found.
As of that morning, no newspaper in the town had yet admitted that there was an epidemic at all.
The fever had first come to New Orleans in January's sixteenth year. In those days you never heard English spoken at all, though the city already belonged to the United States. He'd been studying medicine then with Dr. Gomez and had followed his teacher on his rounds of the hospitals; it seemed to him now, twenty-four years later, that the ache of grief and pity never grew less. Nor did his fear of the fever itself.
He wasn't sure exactly what it was that made him realize he was being stalked.
A glimpse from the corner of his eye as he dodged across Jackson Street among the ambulance wagons, the produce carts, the drays of sugar and indigo on their way to the levee from the inland plantations along the lake. A horse lurched to a stop, tossed its head with an angry snort. A driver cursed in Spanish. Steps away, Freret Street lay deserted under the hot weight of brazen sky, but January knew he wasn't alone. He quickened his stride.
If he walked down Canal Street, among the hip-high weeds, strewn garbage, and dead dogs of what French and Americans alike called the "neutral ground," he would be spared at least some of the stenches of the cemeteries. There seething corpses lined the walls three-deep, like bales on the levee, waiting for tomb space and the men to bear them in. But though he was an accredited member of the Paris College of Surgeons who had practiced at the Hôtel Dieu in that city for six years, January was perfectly well aware that he looked like a field hand: six feet, three inches tall, powerfully built despite the dust of gray that now powdered his short-cropped hair, his skin as glossy black as his African father's had been. That was one reason why it was only in the fever season that he practiced medicine. The rest of the year he played piano to earn his bread. It was an injustice he'd accepted, upon his return to New Orleans from Paris, nearly a year ago.
And things had changed in the city since his departure in 1817.
So he followed Rue Villere downstream, past shabby cottages and grubby shacks in rank jungles of weed, the stench of untended privies, of gutters uncleaned for weeks, and of sties and coops, neglected by their owners, thick as fog around him. An unpaved path, mucky from the morning's rainstorm, led him toward the river.
He was definitely being followed. He didn't want to look back; he couldn't tell by whom.
Rue Douane, the first street of the French town itself, was usually alive with cart and foot traffic. Today, there were only two women in the faded calico of poverty, hurrying with bowed heads. Those, and the dead-carts that lurched toward the cemeteries with their stiffened cargoes wrapped in cheap Osnaburg sheets and their throbbing armies of attendant flies. Like the Americans uptown, the householders here burned piles of hair and hooves from the slaughteryards or smudges made up with gunpowder, to clear the disease-ridden miasma from the air. The smell was foul--charnel house and battlefield rolled into one. The Four Horsemen, January thought, coughing, would bear that smell on their wake when they reaped the plain of Armageddon with their swords.
He cut across Rue Douane midway between two streets, mud sucking his boots. Just before he sprang across the gutter he glanced back. He saw no one.
What do I do? he wondered. What do I do?
From the Paperback edition.