“It’s not supposed to come here, is it? This morning, the weather guys said it was headed for Florida.”
I loaded my bag in the back of my dusty red Pathfinder, phone tucked between shoulder and chin, and paused before climbing in. “What’s it called anyway? Kitty? Koko? Kelly?”
“Just as bad,” Gerry said. “Katrina. Not exactly a name that inspires fear, is it?”
(Royal Street, p19)
This book starts and ends strong. When Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans, it weakens the barriers between this world and the world beyond. And when her boss and mentor, Gerald St. Simon, disappears in the aftermath, Drusilla Jaco, junior wizard sentinel for New Orleans, is left with the task of dealing with the crumbling mystical borders between the city and the Beyond full of deadly baddies.
To make things worse, even as the undead and preternatural creatures pass into the city, someone is murdering soldiers with voodoo rituals. The wizard Elders send an assassin with a briefcase full of guns to aid DJ–and to find and execute the missing Gerald St. Simon for treason. DJ must balance her duty to stop the ritual killings and stabilize the borders with the Beyond with her need to find and warn her mentor.
Royal Street throws us an engaging (sane) heroine, a journey of self-discovery (not as boring as it sounds), and some fun romance potential that doesn’t overwhelm the story. It’s a strong debut for journalist and editor Suzanne Johnson, and this one-time resident of New Orleans pulls heavy inspiration from her personal experiences with the city:
“Royal Street started as my attempt to come to terms with the Katrina debacle, but soon took on a life of its own. It has wizards, sexy assassins, undead pirates and other New Orleans royalty, some voodoo goods, a pretty Mississippi guy with dimples, and what I hope is a sensitive and truthful feel for the horror and strength of spirit that marked New Orleans in the post-Katrina months.” (Suzanne Johnson on Goodreads)
It is that Katrina element, however, makes me hesitate; there is a level of discomfort in seeing a real tragedy translated into a world of fiction. And these are the elements that stand out most brightly in the novel: the guest appearance of Louis Armstrong with his saxophone, the local undead pirate population, and, of course, the natural and human disasters that were Katrina and New Orleans. A voodoo god stops by and the city is drawn with clear prose and purpose.
Beyond the strength of the New Orleans imagery and atmosphere, the overall world structure tips its hat to the standard world-building set up in Urban Fantasy (see authors like Jim Butcher and Rachel Caine).
The mystery is intriguing, keeping the tension and pressure up to the very end. Because the heroine’s strength lies in potion and ritual magic, she’s often forced to rely on her smarts and stubbornness rather than magic. All in all, a fun read.
The real test for Johnson, I think, will come with the publication of her next book, River Road (release date: November 13, 2012) which will have DJ and Alex dealing with a water critter outbreak coming through the opened rift between the Mississippi river and the mythological Styx.
Complimentary copy received courtesy of
Netgalley and Tor Books.