A Novel of Suspense
300 pages. One map of the Mississippi River, one deck plan of the river steamer Silver Moon. Two pages of historical notes.
I previously reviewed Renfield, another novel by this author; a book which I entirely disliked. In fairness to the author, I decided to read and review another of her novels. My local library had two selections, and I chose this one.
I did not realize at the time, nor does the book jacket give any indication, that Dead Water is the eighth book in the Benjamin January series. Otherwise, I might have started at the beginning, but the novel does stand on its own.
The novel takes place in 1836, along the Mississippi. Benjamin January is introduced as a free black man, born in the South but educated in Europe, who for reasons left vague (probably in those other seven books!) has returned to New Orleans. Despite being a trained surgeon, he is unable to practice his profession in New Orleans; fortunately, he has a sum of money to live from, which he has used to purchase a home where his wife runs a school for young black women.
January then has a run-in with a Voodoo Queen, who places a curse on him, that he will lose all that he has.
And then he learns that the Bank of Louisiana, where all his money is deposited, is about to fail due to theft of its gold and securities. Without that money, he cannot make his next payment for the house, and the school will fail.
Therefore, he undertakes a perilous mission at the request of the bank: to pursue the suspected embezzler as he flees north on the Silver Moon steamboat, to locate and recover the stolen treasure. He is accompanied by his schoolmistress wife, Rose; and their musician friend Hannibal (who, for their safety, will pose as their master while they pose as slaves).
The rest of the novel then revolves around the journey up the Mississippi, as January and his companions try to locate the gold, learn about the passengers and crew of the steamboat, and try to avoid voodoo curses, slavery, and the nefarious plans of others who want the gold...
This is a fun adventure novel with a large cast of colorful characters, plenty of action, and many twists of the plot. Most of the characters are "stock templates" and two-dimensional - the angry Irishman, the hen-pecked steamboat owner, the gluttonous Northern businessman - but that might be inevitable given the nature and scope of the story, which takes place during a single voyage.
The author also uses the novel as a means to portray the institution of slavery, and provides an interesting contrast between the white and slave characters on the steamboat. Arguably, the point is overly dramatized - Gleet, the slave trader, thinks nothing of publicly ripping the dress of his young slave so that a prospective buyer can fully inspect her, and is so vile other Southerners avoid his company. Several other of the white characters are shown to have character flaws, while none of the black characters have such weaknesses. (The author makes her point, but it would have been a richer novel if there had been more subtlety.)
Also taking a role in the story is the young Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy, who is interestingly cast here as the "honorable Southerner" who stands up for justice and treats his slaves fairly.
Gamers will be pleased to know that the ending of the novel involves a battle that would be quite fun to game on the tabletop.
All in all, this is an entertaining read with some educational value. Much better than that other book...
Reviewed by Editor in Chief Bill .