All the characters including the thieves and a murderer are on a paddle steamer on the Mississippi – what could go wrong ?

I am completely at a loss as to why Barbara Hambly is not a better known and mre highly regarded author. She splits her writing between fantasy and crime and I feel that she is excellent at both. I own most of her books. In fantasy her book Dragonsbane is definitely one of the best books looking at dragons and inter-species relationships (ignore the three sequels which don’t add anything at all and possibly subtract from the original). She has an excellent vampire series set in early twentieth century London of which the first is Immortal Blood (although I have an American copy called Those Who Hunt the Night – it is the same book). I also love her series about a group of mercenaries when the leader develops magical powers in a world where these are not trusted (first book is The Ladies of Madrigyn) and a duology of books starting with Sisters of the Raven about a world where men are losing magic and women are gaining it. If you like thoughtful fantasy then I recommend her novels.

This author also writes a series of crime books. They are set in New Orleans in the nineteenth century and their main character is Benjamin January. January is an ex-slave who is large and very dark coloured which often determines how people relate to him. He has trained in Paris as a doctor but makes his living as a musician and music teacher because he is not allowed to practise in America. His story begins in A Free Man of Color/Colour and a book published later this year will be the nineteenth in the series. I have previously reviewed an earlier title and you can see my blog here. I am currently rereading this series and have reached the eighth book Dead Water.

At the end of a previous book in the series January and his wife Rose found buried pirate money which will allow them to buy their own home and make them more secure. At the beginning of this book the owner of the bank where their money is invested tells them that a bank official has absconded with all the money and their savings are lost. January agrees to pursue the thief with a view to getting the money back and he follows them by boarding the same paddle steamer down the Mississippi. He obviously can’t travel in his own right other than as a passenger sleeping on the deck so he enlists his friend Hannibal, an Irishman of good education and deplorable habits, and masquerades as his slave. The journey is fraught with danger for January. At any time, on the word of a white man and with no evidence, he could be flogged or lynched. The banks of the river and the towns they pass are filled with slave traders who could get big money by capturing him and selling him on to the plantations. It is obvious that other passengers are also aware who has taken the money and are hoping to steal it themselves which places January, Hannibal and Rose in equal danger. There are river pirates after the boat. January has to stay alive, stay free and find the money or he will lose his home and security.

This book is full of action. Everyone is worthy of suspicion and there is more than one secret held by the passengers. Ben and Hannibal find themselves under physical attack and don’t know who is behind the threats. Always there is the fear that January or Rose will find themselves enslaved and sold away from their homes and family.

This book is a fine exploration of the various different attitudes that white people had towards slaves and free black people. It also demonstrates the different fates awaiting black people and shows how fragile their security is at any time. It is a book full of tension and real sadness in places and it is obvious that things won’t necessarily end well for many of the characters.

I enjoy this series and the way that the author opens up an area and a time that I know very little about. The characterisation is strong although I do recommend starting with the first book to see friendships formed and alliances made.

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