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Die Upon A Kiss    by Barbara Hambly order for
Die Upon A Kiss
by Barbara Hambly
Order:  USA  Can
Bantam, 2002 (2001)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Barbara Hambly's mystery series set in 1800s New Orleans is in my opinion the best of historical whodunit's. Ex-slave Benjamin January was trained as a surgeon in Paris, where he married and lived happily for years until his beloved Berber wife Ayasha died. January is also an accomplished musician, and has made his living as such since his return to New Orleans, for music is the 'flesh that robed his soul's chilled bones.' He has even found a new love, the studious, spectacled quadroon Rose, 'though the love he bore for the dear friend of his heart now was as different from Ayasha's as a poppy in sunlight differs from the heavy beat of the summer ocean.'

Die Upon A Kiss is the fifth in the series following the harrowing Sold Down the River. It is set during Mardi Gras and follows the fortunes of an operatic production. Impresario Lorenzo Belaggio has imported an opera version of Othello (the book's title is taken from the ending of the play) along with some Cuban slaves, whom he illegally auctions. As the story begins, Belaggio is set upon in an alley, where Benjamin saves his life. Though the opera soars, the impresario is something of a sleaze. Besides selling Cubans, he insists that his bella Drusilla La d'Isola be prima, despite her mediocre voice.

It's a somewhat complicated plot, well populated with characters all grinding their various axes. There are smugglers of slaves, a vicious Creole gentleman who got away with the murder of his plac9e mistress, Austrian and Italian spies, churning politics involving American parvenus and Creole French, a few murders and attempted murders ... and of course the selection of Othello, with its love between a black man and a white woman, as tinder to the blaze.

The characters are as fascinating and quirky as ever. Old favorites include the consumptive Hannibal, the careless Abishag Shaw who calls Ben 'Maestro', the brilliant Rose, and Ben's own family of sisters and mother - individualists all. Amongst the new protagonists are Ben's old Parisian friend, Marguerite, who sheds a little more light on his past. Ben's mother's attitude towards her son remains puzzling, his romance with Rose develops at a snail's pace, and he comes in for his usual share of physical abuse in this episode.

It's an interesting juxtaposition, the combination of high-flown operatic music and the evils of trading in human flesh. And New Orleans in the 1800s is complex and colorful, its societal layers reminiscent of the Indian caste system, with the French Creole aristocracy on top and the black slaves treated worse than Untouchables. If you haven't discovered this series yet, start at the beginning with A Free Man of Color - you'll just keep on reading.

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