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Sold Down the River    by Barbara Hambly order for
Sold Down the River
by Barbara Hambly
Order:  USA  Can
Bantam, 2001 (2000)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Sold Down the River is the fourth book in Hambly's historical New Orleans series that started with A Free Man of Color. The hero is Benjamin January - physician, musician and ex-slave. Ben was brought up on a plantation and freed after his mother was sold to St.-Denis Janvier, who had Ben educated. January trained as a surgeon in France, where he lived for sixteen years. He returned to New Orleans when the death of his Berber wife made Paris unbearable for him. While he could only make a precarious living and New Orleans was dangerous to any man of color, especially one as dark as January, he had family there.

Previous stories have been set mainly in the Creole world of New Orleans. In them Ben has developed relationships with his sisters, consumptive fellow musician and friend Hannibal, the rough Yankee policeman Abishag Shaw, and lately with Rose, a schoolteacher who shares his love of books. This time, January's help is sought from an unexpected source - his previous master, a vicious man with a violent temper. Simon Fourchet's sugar cane plantation, Mon Triumphe, has been plagued by sabotage and attempted murder, and he offers Ben five hundred dollars to pose as a slave and investigate.

Ben refuses until Rose points out to him the dire consequences to the plantation slaves if their master is killed. Ben goes with a great deal of trepidation that he might end up being 'sold down the river', a risk that grows with distance from the city. Hambly's stories, whether these historical mysteries or her fantasy series, are all dark in atmosphere. The odds tend to be stacked against her protagonists, so that it sometimes seems to be too much and the reader feels like urging the author to give her characters a break.

In this series one suspects the portrayal of the brutality, helplessness and constant humiliation of slavery to be an accurate one. When Ben submits to it he remembers that the 'house, and the mill, and the kitchen and barn and shops - those were the white man's kingdom' and 'had nearly forgotten how completely the eight-foot walls of the cane shut out air, sound, light, reducing everything to dense narrow slots of rustling gloom.' There is more sabotage and more deaths, and voodoo is in the air. Ben cuts cane by day and seeks clues by night, a perilous course with a predictable outcome.

Sold Down the River is a satisfyingly complex mystery that moves towards an exciting climax. The historical background is, as always, fascinating, though the day to day life of a slave is hard even for a reader to endure. Ben suffers but also recovers memories of his childhood and finds out more about the father he has barely remembered. It's a remarkable series and this latest addition maintains the standard.

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