New Orleans in 1837 is rocked by the scandal of two harem girls of the Hussein Pasha being thrown to their deaths from the roof of his house. Benjamin January, a free man of color who, although trained as a doctor, can get no patients because of the color of his skin and therefore supports himself by playing music on the cornet for the rich New Orleans Creoles at their parties, is thrown into the middle of what actually happened to the two women because he knows Hussein Pasha from his earlier sojourn in Paris, where he studied to be a Doctor.
Just as in New Orleans, Ben supported himself in Paris on the strength of his ability to play music, and even had a wife, an Arabian girl who herself had been raised in the Harem named Ayasha. Because of her knowing Arabic, when another of Hussein Pasha's concubines was poisoned with Quinine, his wife turned to Ayasha to find someone who would know how to save her. Ben was brought in to treat the girl and save her life, as well as that of her unborn child, which was supposed to be male, and thus would be Hussein Pasha's first and only son. The concubine's ability to get pregnant with a boy child engendered jealousy and hatred in the other concubines, and they wished to eliminate her.
Thankfully, Ben was able to save her life, but he is sure she will lose her baby- only she doesn't, and shortly afterwards, she runs away from the house and Hussein Pasha, for unknown reasons. Is she in fear of her life, or that of her unborn son, should she continue to stay among the other women of the harem? Ben only knows that he must find her before Hussein Pasha returns to the city from England if he doesn't want there to be more violence in the Harem.
But when kidnappers abduct his wife by mistake, apparently thinking her to be the missing concubine, he must ally with Hussein Pasha to save Ayasha and get Hussein back his son, if not his Jewish concubine. But can Ben do that, even with the help of Hussein Pasha, if his slave girl has returned to a distant branch of her family in Paris?
In the present, Ben knows from experience that simply killing the two women by defenestrating them is something that Hussein Pasha simply wouldn't do. He says as much to his mother, who tells him that everyone knows that women's lives mean nothing to Mohammedan men, and that "everyone knows this". Ben protests that, but it seems that nobody will listen to him except for his wife, Rose. Everyone is acting as if Hussein Pasha is guilty, but the man who says he saw the Arab kill the women was having carnal relations with one of them, and is in no way a credible witness- but he'll be believed simply because he's white.
With sentiment in the city souring towards Hussein Pasha, who is in jail, his wife and his household are in danger from those who would lash out at a man they consider a murderer. But as January works to find out the truth, there are those who would see him arrested and executed for supporting a man who everyone else thinks is guilty. Can Ben discover who really killed the women, and who stole Hussein Pasha's gold? And for that matter, can he save a man who may be ugly on the outside, but who is honorable and good on the inside, even if everyone else assumes his guilt as a matter of course?
I always enjoy reading the Benjamin January books, and this one was no exception. At first, I thought that the story of how Ben met Hussein Pasha,and how the man saved Ben's wife, Ayasha, was going to encompass the whole book. But that wasn't the case, and I was pleasantly surprised by how the first part of the book was a mystery all on its own. It's almost half the book, but at the same time, didn't feel rushed or cut short, and I loved the interaction of Ben and Ayasha.
The second part of the book, rooted in New Orleans is also amazing, and I have to say that the last page of the ending almost made me cry. The understanding that Ben and Rose have, and the new understanding they reach at the end, with their refusal to lie to each other about their dreams, really touched my heart. It felt very heartwarming and not at all fictional. People are people and sometimes, love and real life hurts in a way that fiction doesn't, and it was the most real part of the book to me.
I enjoyed this book very much. In the hands of a lesser writer, it could have seemed a bit schizophrenic, with two separate stories joined into one. But the view of the marriage of Ben and Ayasha really made the ending, and the first story showed us the honor and nobility of Hussein Pasha in a way that a recounted story could not, and showed us why Ben knew that Hussein Pasha could never have killed his concubines the way he was claimed to. An excellent story that touched me and entertained me at the same time. Highly recommended.