on 23 October 2003
Benjamin January and his new wife, Rose, are caught up in Mexican intrigue in Days of the Dead, Barbara Hambly's latest January novel. In it, Hambly removes January from the familiar confines of 1830s New Orleans to put him in a new environment, though the suspense, mystery, and characterization is the same: top-notch. Hambly has done her research and it shows, as she immerses the reader in chaotic Mexico City in 1835, months before General Santa Anna marched on Texas. The fact that she provides an interesting story that will always keep you guessing is an added benefit.
Barbara Hambly has long been one of my favourite authors, and the January series is always a treat. She's always been a master at creating atmosphere, but New Orleans has always seemed to inspire her to new heights. This time, she transplants this to Mexico City, but she continues to set the stage well. Her descriptions are wonderful, placing the reader right into the dirty streets, the majestic countryside or the Aztec pyramids. Even when she just has two characters walking down the street talking, she sets the mood with the vivid descriptions of the lepers begging for money, the carriages trundling down the street, and the merchants hawking their goods. If you are not a fan of description and just want the "meat" of the story, then Hambly's books are not for you. But if you like to be "in the scene" with the characters, you can't beat the January series.
That doesn't mean that nothing happens in these books. Far from it. The mystery that Hambly presents is intriguing and will definitely have you wondering what's going on. There is a little bit of action too as the bullets do fly, and the ending is breathtaking in its tension. Hambly does a wonderful job wrapping the mystery around the setting, making Mexico an integral part of it. While Hambly has clearly done a lot of research into the time period, she doesn't present it to the reader on a plate, showcasing it. Instead, everything that she puts in there is for a purpose. Some of it is to set the scene, but most of it does involve the mystery in some way, including the ways family worked in Mexico at the time. It truly is seamless and the reader can learn a lot just by reading (she does point out, in notes at the back of the book, a couple of incidents of poetic license she took).
All the characters can be a bit confusing at first, but overall she does very well with them. It can be a bit hard to keep all of the family relationships straight in the reader's mind. One good thing that she does, avoiding a trap that other series writers don't always, is she doesn't force all of her characters into a book. In Wet Grave, she left Hannibal out. In Days of the Dead, she doesn't come up with some reason why January's family would get involved in something down in Mexico. Thus, his sisters and mother, along with Lieutenant Shaw, make no appearance. While I missed Shaw (my favourite character in the series), I'm glad she didn't force the issue.
So we're left with Ben, Rose, and Hannibal, and all three of them are marvelous. Rose has grown in the previous books from a woman who is very reserved and fearful of men into a self-assured woman who is even able to flirt when necessary to find out information. Some people may think that's bad characterization, but I think it's a natural growth that her exposure to Benjamin and her ability to finally give in to her love for him has caused. She's dealt with her demons, and she has moved on, and Hambly has handled her progression wonderfully. Ben and Hannibal are also very interesting people with weaknesses and faults, but virtues that go beyond them.
She handles the guest characters with equal aplomb. All of them are distinctive in some way, though again there are so many at first that it's hard to keep track. They aren't cardboard at all, with each one given three dimensions in some way. Probably the best is the cook, Guillenormand, who is very feisty when it comes to his cooking being questioned, and flies off the handle at even the hint that something in his food may have caused the death. It's a wonderful scene and he's a wonderful character.
I heartily recommend Days of the Dead. It's not necessary to read any of the previous books, but I do believe you'll get more out of it if you do. If you like suspense and historical mysteries, give the Benjamin January series a try. You won't regret it.