Back in August 2015, I reviewed the first book in the 'Sentinels of New Orleans' series by Suzanne Johnson. It was called 'Royal Street' (click here for review) and I read it because I'd been given book four to review, 'Pirate's Alley' (click here for review), and I enjoyed that enough to want to find out where it came from. I read the books in between too but failed to review them at the Nameless Zine because someone else had already done that. Well, with book five now on my shelf, it's time for me to go back and re-read the whole series and fill in those missing reviews. So here's a long overdue book two.
In 'Royal Street', we discovered that Drusilla Jaco, who goes by DJ, is a sort of border agent, doing the sorts of things that border agents do. It's just that her particular border is the one between our world and the Beyond, an enticing place full of the supernatural and the remembered dead. When those creatures decide to cross over, it's her job to deal with it. Well, it's really the job of her boss, the sentinel, for whom she works as a junior wizard, but when he disappears during Hurricane Katrina, she steps up to fill his shoes and, by the end of the book, the job is hers because Gerald St. Simon wasn't what anyone thought.
In 'River Road', the first sequel, set three years later, we find that St. Simon's traitorous attempts to allow pretes, the preternatural creatures in the Beyond, to share our world, succeeded despite his death and the foiling of his general plan. The border had been blown open by Katrina and even the wizards, the largest and strongest of the prete groups, can't put it back, so the New Orleans that DJ now patrols with her shapeshifter partner, Alex Warin, is fundamentally new to them and everyone else.
It's a cautious world. The wizards are talking with the elves, vampires, weres and who knows who else, to find a way to coexist peacefully, without the human population catching on. In the meantime, many are crossing the border, not least the famous privateer, Jean Lafitte, who is one of the historical undead, famous people who are remembered well enough to bring them back in undead form. I adored the idea in 'Royal Street' of using Louis Armstrong as a spy, while performing at the Green Gator as a particularly good Louis Armstrong impersonator. Lafitte is easily the most obvious of the historical undead and his presence here builds superbly from book one, esconced as he is now in the Eudora Welty suite at the Hotel Monteleone.
Those inter-species political talks going on in the background are but one of the subplots meandering about the core story here, which really revolves around the same thing: different species trying to get along and not doing too well with the concept. Ostensibly, it's about a brouhaha between families of mermen in Plaquemines Parish, in rural southeastern Louisiana by the mouth of the mighty Mississippi. The Delachaise clan have been around for centuries, long enough that Lafitte remembers them from his time, but the Villeres are new arrivals, pushed down from Bayou Teche by weregators who moved in after the borders fell. And with the river apparently now poisoned, each side is blaming the other and violence is imminent, so it's time for DJ to figure out the problem and come up with a solution.
Other subplots involve the discovery of dead wizards, not even practising ones, in the area, one of them ritually murdered; the struggle of Jake Warin, Alex's cousin, to come to terms with his new status as loup garou and his new job as enforcer; and a set of awkward dates for DJ: Jake, for romantic reasons; Jean Lafitte, in the Beyond, no less, because it'll clear her debt to him; and Alex, for no better reason than his mama believes that they're an item. What I liked most on the romantic front is that DJ isn't with Alex; her friend Eugenie states outright that it will be 'inevitable' and we believe her, but it would have been so obvious here that it would have been clichéd. Instead, Suzanne Johnson mixes things up reasonably well and the story benefits from that.
While 'River Road' is the second in a series, it works very well as a standalone novel. You don't have to read the first book to understand the second, but you would miss a few aspects, there to move things along. You'd catch a few hints, because it's quite obvious that a couple of characters introduced here are going to be important later, even if we don't know how. Mace Banyan is the easier one to place, as the leader of the elves, important for DJ has elvish blood and has been adopted by an ancient elven staff, known as Mahout. Who Quince Randolph will be, we have little idea yet, but we'll surely find out soon. We do meet some elder wizards too, Willem Zrakovi and Adrian Hoffman, as alike as chalk and cheese.
I liked 'River Road' and appreciated a novel about mermen, something I've never encountered before, but I felt at the time that it was an anomalous second volume, just like Seanan McGuire's 'A Local Habitation'. It does its job to move the series on from Katrina, which was a fantastic and meaningful backdrop to the first book, but it loses some power because of it; Johnson fails to bring the mouth of the Mississippi to the same sort of life. The deeper world she's writing about becomes the new backdrop, but she restrains herself from bringing that to life too, which is unfortunate. We do get introduced to mermen, mainstreaming as fishermen; nymphs, who choose to be escorts; and others, less well-defined, but there's a long way to go. Re-reading, it seemed that Johnson, as comfortable as she was describing New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, wasn't yet comfortable describing the world that was growing in her head.
But hey, this is fun, and it introduced me to Cajun singer/songwriter Zachary Richard, which is not a bad thing, either for my musical education or for the sake of variety on these pages; I'm a big fan of BeauSoleil but it was starting to seem like they were the only Louisiana band that Johnson had heard of.
Next month: I'll catch up with book three, 'Elysian Fields'. ~~ Hal C F Astell