Review: The Ninth Daughter, by Barbara Hamilton

Somebody in a position of metaphysical authority apparently emailed my subconscious and asked it what it would like for the holidays this year, because for me, this book was the quintessential perfect gift: the thing you didn’t know you wanted until you hold it in your hand and realize, This is just what I have always wanted.

What I have always wanted, it turns out, is a historical mystery featuring Abigail Adams as an intrepid detective attempting to catch a serial killer in colonial Massachusetts on the eve of the Boston Tea Party, written by Barbara Hamilton. (Debut author Hamilton turns out to be not such a neophyte after all—it’s a pseudonym for fantasy and mystery veteran Barbara Hambly, author of several of my favorite booksDragonsbane, A Free Man of Color, The Time of the Dark, and Bride of the Rat God. SCORE!)

Did I mention, SCORE!?

The year is 1773. The American port city of Boston is not precisely under martial law, but it’s not precisely unoccupied by British troops, either. The redcoats are deeply unwelcomed by the Sons of Liberty, American colonials opposed to the English crown’s oppressive policies in the new world.

One of those rabble-rousers is Abigail’s husband John (known to history as the second President of the United States of America, for those of you who ain’t from around here), who is at this juncture merely a lawyer, a family man, and a bit of a revolutionary. When a Tory’s mistress is murdered in the home of Abigail’s bosom friend Rebecca and John is framed for the murder—and for Rebecca’s concurrent disappearance—Abigail finds herself enmeshed in an investigation that leads her through peril, intrigue, and conspiracy.

All in all, and quite predictably, I adored this book. Abigail Adams, politics, serial killers, and Hamilton’s complicated balancing act between political sides, while managing to make all sorts of people sympathetic—the Tories and Whigs are hardly a black and white set of sides, in this book—combine with a fast-paced narrative and an evocative look at 18th century American social history to create an extremely engaging book. The author knows her stuff, and the world she builds is memorable and textured and identifiably alien but progenitor to our own.

I also greatly enjoyed her awareness of social issues confronting women, non-Puritans, and people of color in the era, which I felt was handled with the kind of expertise and light touch I’d expect from her alter ego.  Adams remains a believable 18th century woman, not a modern feminist transplanted to Revolutionary times—but as she was something of a firebrand in her own person (she agitated for female suffrage in the United States from the first) that works out just fine. The book also confronts class issues without ever feeling as if it were didactic rather than illuminating.

I did have a few quibbles with the text, of course. (There would be no review, elsewise!) I figured out whodunnit just a little too easily, but then I might know a bit more about serial killer psychology than is healthy, and Hamilton is playing scrupulously fair. I thought one scene near the end of the book was cutesy (the “Ugh!” one) and while certain details of it are historically accurate, the lack of any authentic Native American characters made for somewhat uncomfortable reading. (Of course, it’s early days yet, and based on the evidence of the Benjamin January books, I suspect the topics of race and class and gender roles are not to be considered dealt with, in regard to this series.) I thought Abigail’s children were insufficiently characterized, but that may have been a space issue.

Those are, however, quite minor complaints in the face of all the ways the book overjoyed me—from its voice, to its protagonist, to the delicacy and accomplishment of the actual writing itself.

This author can plot, characterize, evoke setting—and she can also rub words together. And that’s about the highest praise I can give.

Elizabeth Bear is the award-winning author of over fifty short stories and more than a dozen science fiction and fantasy novels, including By The Mountain Bound. She wants to know if future book reviews may be submitted as a diorama with a verbal report.



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