1774—Being a review of Barbara Hamilton’s A Marked Man

If you hadn’t guessed from the tags, “Barbara Hamilton” is a somewhat transparent pseudonym for SFF’s own Barbara Hambly. I reviewed the first of her Abigail Adams mysteries here last year around this time.

A Negro slave is missing. The King’s Special Commissioner—a man of limited popularity in pre-Revolution Boston—has been murdered. And Abigail Adams is on the job.

More than anything else about Hamilton/Hambly’s work, I think I love the way she writes marriages. They make me think that I might like to be married, which is a pretty good trick given my track record. The central relationship in these books—that of Abigail and John Adams, one of the most famous (and famously well-documented, given the status of both of its members as compulsive letter-writers) romances in American history—is delightful. It’s writen in delightful nuance, neither saccharine nor flat nor overly “romancy,” but just the daily life of two strong and nonconformist people who have well-worn in to each others tics and quirks through the years.

Abigail is also a cunning protagonist: she’s smart and bold and completely believable as an 18th-century woman of very good sense and a strong belief in justice. Likewise, I can’t fault Hamilton’s worldbuilding. Her wintry Boston of the late colonial era rings as true as if you’d dropped a silver coin on its stones.

I do think this book has some weaknesses, however. While the plot is suitably intricate (and I very much liked the way the two plots—the missing slave and the murdered man—hooked up in an unexpected fashion) it’s also a bit muddled, at first. It took me at least a third of the book to sort out exactly how each of the characters related to one another, and I don’t think it was due to lack of attention on my part.

However, I do recall that in the previous book, I complained a bit about Abigail’s children feeling like placeholders. They are much better-developed in this book, and a number of other delightful secondary characters return and grow in complexity. I’ve also got to grant Hamilton points for a plot resolution that completely fooled me. I had thought she was going in a different direction entirely, so while I correctly identified the killer, I managed to get something backwards.

This book has a real, delightful focus on the technology and forensic know-how of the day. Hamilton manages not to make it “CSI: Revolutionary Boston”—instead, she focuses on the common-sense knowledge of housewifery and husbandry (back when those words meant something a little different than they do today) and English common law, and manages to come up with a really clever time-of-death dodge that made me crow a bit when I figured it out.

This novel isn’t as socially ascerbic as the Benjamin January novels can be, but it is entertaining, and thoughtful, and pretty solid reading all around. And of course, Hamilton’s writing is strong enough that I stopped several times to read passages out loud to my roommate, which I only do with things I really like.

Elizabeth Bear wants to be Abigail Adams when she grows up.


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