Royal Street (Sentinels of New Orleans #1)
by Suzanne Johnson
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: April 10, 2012
Paperback, 336 pages
Review copy received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
As the junior wizard sentinel for New Orleans, Drusilla Jaco’s job involves a lot more potion-mixing and pixie-retrieval than sniffing out supernatural bad guys like rogue vampires and lethal were-creatures. DJ’s boss and mentor, Gerald St. Simon, is the wizard tasked with protecting the city from anyone or anything that might slip over from the preternatural beyond.
Then Hurricane Katrina hammers New Orleans’ fragile levees, unleashing more than just dangerous flood waters.
While winds howled and Lake Pontchartrain surged, the borders between the modern city and the Otherworld crumbled. Now, the undead and the restless are roaming the Big Easy, and a serial killer with ties to voodoo is murdering the soldiers sent to help the city recover.
To make it worse, Gerry has gone missing, the wizards’ Elders have assigned a grenade-toting assassin as DJ’s new partner, and undead pirate Jean Lafitte wants to make her walk his plank. The search for Gerry and for the serial killer turns personal when DJ learns the hard way that loyalty requires sacrifice, allies come from the unlikeliest places, and duty mixed with love creates one bitter gumbo.
I first heard about Royal Street, the first book in the Sentinels of New Orleans series, on my fellow blogger, Midnyte Reader‘s, blog, and the first thing that grabbed me was the book’s title, because Royal Street is, aside from Bourbon Street, possibly the best known or most famous street in New Orleans. As I’ve noted a few times on this blog, I’m obsessed with the city, and am more than thrilled that I’ll be attending the Bram Stoker Awards® Weekend 2013, Incorporating the World Horror Convention as it will be my first trip to the Big Easy, so I had no doubt that I wanted to read Royal Street as the plot description drew me in. There have been quite a few recent urban fantasy and paranormal romance releases in the past few years set in New Orleans, but few actually devote a sense of authenticity or some semblance that the author has researched the city, as the characters do a “quick and dirty” version of going through the city, a “let’s just put the setting as New Orleans for the sake of making it New Orleans”, and I find they don’t really convey a strong sense of the city to the reader in the same way that Anne Rice’s novels do.
The author, Suzanne Johnson, who has lived in New Orleans for many years, and who survived Hurricane Katrina, definitely provides a more integrated and holistic approach to her presentation of the city, which is tied directly to the plot. In Johnson’s version of the post-Katrina city, there is a council of wizards, known as the Elders, who are the governing body representing magic users, and similarly to Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files urban fantasy series, colour indicates a wizard’s rank. The protagonist, Drusilla Jaco (she goes by DJ) is a lower level wizard under the tutelage of Gerald St. Simon, her mentor and protector, who is also one of the higher ranking wizards. One of the DJ’s roles is as sentinel, meaning she’s something of a guardian for the city, to make sure supernatural baddies don’t run amok and cause too much havoc, especially since there’s a history of them using wizards to break free from the other side, referred to here as the Beyond, which is where the fae, vampires, dwarves, elves, and a host of nasty spirits reside. The novel starts as Katrina is about to hit, which splits up Gerry and DJ. While she’s safe in Alabama, she hears word from the Elders that Gerry is missing and that she’s to come back to New Orleans straight away to get the investigation started.
Turns out that storms like Katrina provide the perfect opportunity for the supernatural baddies to put a foot in the door to the real world, and New Orleans specifically, which is just what they do. DJ soon gets more of an intimate knowledge of notorious pirate Jean Lafitte than she would have liked, and finds herself constantly getting tangled up with him and his nefarious intentions and proposals, which adds considerably to her problems. The Elders also don’t trust her to work the case alone, so they send a nearby sentinel, Alex, who is a shifter, and his cousin, Jake. Although there’s some romantic tension and subtle allusions of what’s going on between Alex and DJ, as he mentions to people that they’re an item as a cover story, which doesn’t sit well with her at first, I was glad that the book stuck to the urban fantasy elements and didn’t turn into a paranormal romance.
While DJ is busy getting to the root of Gerry’s disappearance, she summons no less than Marie Laveau, the famed Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, to get her answers, and to find out who has been targeting wizards in the city and killing them. She doesn’t like what all the stones she unturns uncover. They lead her to perhaps the most recognizable voodoo figure, or at least the one most people who don’t know much about the religion seem to be familiar with, Baron Samedi, who is my favourite of the loa, or spirits. Turns out the spirit who governs over death is none too pleased about his lack of power, and he’s recruited some supernatural backup to help him cross the Beyond and get into New Orleans permanently, so he can gain a following of worshippers. Trouble is, people DJ cares about are tangled too tightly in Samedi’s web, and she makes a few key discoveries toward the end of the book that, while they help clarify matters, also complicate things for her considerably. In other words, it’s not just a simple matter of DJ getting to the Beyond and trying to zap Baron Samedi into oblivion before he kills her. DJ’s loyalties and who she considers an ally shift, which adds to the increasing tension as the finale and grand confrontation come to a head.
One of the things I appreciated about the magic system and world-building of Royal Street was that magic isn’t an overly simplistic “point and shoot with wand plus maybe a few incantations” affair, and that DJ goes through rituals every time she has to do some of the bigger ticket items in her arsenal. And although she grows in power as the book goes on, learning more about her heritage, which was a nice addition, and she does employ Gerry’s staff, she does everything with great risk to herself, and doesn’t magically just save the day in a brushed off “not a big deal” manner, which was good to see.
The exploration of Old Orleans, which is part of the Beyond, was also a cool, and bonus points to the author for incorporating the spirit of jazz legend Louis Armstrong as a character, which was definitely a highlight. But things aren’t all doom and gloom. There’s definitely a healthy dose of humour, which changes things up a bit and lightens the mood when necessary. Some loose ends were left open for the sequel, River Road, which came out in November of this year.
If you haven’t added this author to your TBR pile yet and you’re a fanatic when it comes to New Orleans and magic, you owe it to yourself to add Royal Street to your must-read list asap. And it makes for a great read over the holidays if you’re not sure what to read next.