Having read the first four books in Suzanne Johnson's 'Sentinels of New Orleans' series out of order, re-reading them in order highlights how this third novel is the one where it all gets serious. 'Royal Street' (click here for review) introduced the characters we'll follow throughout and provided the bedrock on which the series would be built. 'River Road' (click here for review)expanded the scope, hinted at the future and added a few more key characters, some in detail and some not. But it was this book, 'Elysian Fields', that really pulls all those elements together, along with some previously missing pieces, to rook us between the eyes in the context of a series. Book four, 'Pirate's Alley' (click here for review), the most action-packed of them all, is more like a grenade than a punch and book five, 'Belle Chasse'... well, I haven't read that one yet so you'll have to wait till next month to find out what happens there!
If you haven't been paying attention or, if like me, you're reading out of order (which is doable for this series), I should outline where we've got to. We're in New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina tore through the boundary between the world we know and the Beyond, home of both supernatural races and our own dead. Our heroine, Drusilla Jaco, who prefers DJ but who is often called other things by other people, whether she likes it or not, is a wizard. As the series began, she was merely a sort of border guard working for the local Sentinel, helping to keep that boundary closed and policed. After Katrina, there was nothing left to police and the denizens of the worlds beyond weren't unhappy. Instead, they began to establish an inter-species council where they and the wizards could allow travel back and forth in a controlled fashion. And, as the new Sentinel, DJ is right in the middle of that political mess.
Of course, that's just the big picture. Johnson gives us a whole slew of little ones to keep us busy while the big one rattles along. She certainly doesn't want DJ to have a dull moment, which the relatively laid back first two books avoided in completely different ways. New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Katrina was quiet and the bayous of southeastern Louisiana are no different. That all changes here.
For a start, there's a serial killer in town, a supernatural serial killer who's visiting from the Beyond to pick up a set of murders he started almost a century earlier, not that the cops are buying into that theory. He's the Axeman of New Orleans, regarded by the press as Axeman Deux, and only wizards like DJ, who deal with the historical undead, real people who are remembered so well that they come back to life, can handle the case properly. The catch here is that it soon becomes apparent that the Axeman is hunting DJ as much she's hunting him.
She's also dealing with a whole bunch of other species. Her former partner, now working with a newly formed FBI special unit, the Division of Domestic Terror (or DDT) is Alex, a shapeshifter who turns into a large dog. His cousin, Jake, is dealing with being turned into a loup-garou. Jean Lafitte, notorious privateer, deepens as a character yet again, beyond continually asking for dates with DJ. And there's Rene Delachaise, merman and survivor of the events of the previous book. None of those are new, of course.
However, the elves are becoming important. DJ has elven blood and the ancient elven staff known as Mahout (though she calls Charlie) has adopted her, so her least favourite wizard, Adrian Hoffman, is teaching her how to wield it while the elves pursue their own agenda. There's a particularly brutal sequence here where they kidnap DJ over to Elfheim and sort through her memories against her will; there's nothing sexual involved at all but it can only be described as a rape.
There are vampires in town too, led by Etienne Boulard who, needless to say, runs a club. It's hilarious to watch Adrian Hoffman, who absolutely hates vampires, promptly fall head over heels for one of them during a visit to consult with Etienne. What's more, the vampire explains that the historical Axeman is only back from the Beyond because he's been summoned by a necromancer, something entirely new to the series. Just wait till Johnson adds the Fae into the mix; I told you book four was explosive!
While each of these books can be read in isolation (I started with book four and it made sense, if not as much as if I'd have got there the long way), this is the first one to truly feel like an entry in a series. The first book in any series has to stand alone because there may never be a second, but 'Royal Street' had a style all of its own; it did as well as a post-Katrina novel as it did an urban fantasy. 'River Road' did continue the story and enhance it in places but it was very much its own entity too and the shenanigans going on behind the main plot were very much behind.
In 'Elysian Fields', those shenanigans move forward to colour and taint everything else. Is that necromancer working with the vampires? Or the elves? Or the wizards? Who’s working with who? Is it a political move or something else entirely? Most obviously, we get the answer to the questions that became apparent towards the end of book two, namely who and what is Quince Randolph and why is he in the story? More than anything, we set up what will come in book four, something that the first two novels didn't seem too concerned with. They were patient books, who knew that the future would get here soon enough and were happy to wait for it to do so. This book isn't patient at all; it wants to get on with things and is almost upset that they won't go nuts until after it's done.
I wonder how much of this is because Suzanne Johnson was a debut novelist with 'Royal Street', which kicked this series into motion. It was a good book and I liked its sequel a lot more than my fellow reviewer here at the Nameless Zine, but they were novels. This one feels like she'd become comfortable with writing a series rather than just a novel and the next one backs that up even more. After all, there's a coherent core here, wrapped in a firmly evolving background environment, with all sorts of characters progressing forward and a slew of genres playing well with each other. This is an urban fantasy but it has plenty of horror, romance and history too, not to forget comedy, as ably highlighted through DJ's initial attempts to master Mahout's powers at a deserted Six Flags. It doesn't skimp on the tragedy either, which carries a punch. After everything that DJ lost in the first two books, I felt her loss in this one all the more acutely.
And with that, I'll put down my virtual pen and pick up book five. I've already reviewed 'Pirate's Alley' here at the Nameless Zine so, with the first four finally taken care of, I'll be back with a review of 'Belle Chasse' next month. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For more titles in the Sentinels of New Orleans series click here