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Dead Water    by Barbara Hambly order for
Dead Water
by Barbara Hambly
Order:  USA  Can
Bantam, 2004 (2004)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

It's the 1830s and Benjamin January, his spectacled wife Rose Vitrac and their friend Hannibal have returned to New Orleans from the latter's Mexican rescue in Days of the Dead. Benjamin and Rose have invested their recently acquired wealth (from a pirate cache unearthed in a previous episode) in a bank recommended by January's cold placée mother Livia, and are about to complete payments on a house purchase as part of their plan to run 'a school for young girls of color'.

As this 8th in the series opens, Louisiana Bank President Hubert Granville shows up to inform January that bank official Oliver Weems has absconded with the bank's reserves and to ask Ben's help in getting them (including his own money) back. As a result, Benjamin, Rose and Hannibal join their suspect on a Mississippi river journey on the steamboat Silver Moon, Ben posing as Hannibal's slave valet (a layout of the boat is provided to guide the reader's imagination). It's an especially risky venture for free blacks, whose status is fragile around slave-dealers like Ned Gleet and the hard-eyed Jubal Cain, both aboard the Silver Moon and interested in acquiring more merchandise. The risk to Rose and Ben is compounded by the fact that he offended voodoo Queen Régine before embarking - she cursed him (at length) 'to the ruin of all you touch, and the destruction of all you hope!'

Besides the slave-traders and their chained coffles, the boat's crew and passengers include aggressive pilot Kevin Molloy and his lovely (but grasping) young inamorata Theodora Skippen, Oliver Weems and his hard as nails ladylove Mrs. Diana Fischer, Julie and Sophie (female slave servants of the ladies), and enlightened young planter, Colonel Jefferson Davies (who later became the only President of the Confederate States of America). To complicate matters further, as they board, Ben glimpses Queen Régine. There are odd occurrences on the steamboat - Weems seems to have a hold over Cain, Mrs. Fischer clearly has one over Weems, and is there a stowaway on board? Ben searches the hold (unsuccessfully) for secreted banknotes, follows Weems and Fischer on shore into great danger, saves a fleeing slave from ruthless conmen, and fights off river pirates. Both Hannibal and Ben are suspected of murder, and the bank's stolen loot is not to be found. How will Ben, Rose and Hannibal get out of this one?

They do, of course, and the neat (and surprising) solution resolves Queen Régine's curse and puts our hero in contact with members of the Underground Railway, which I'm sure sets the scene for the next in this remarkable series.

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