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Book Review: Royal Street (Sentinels of New Orleans #1)

Royal Street Cover

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.

Plot Description:

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.

Happy Reading!

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Darkeva’s Top 5 UF Picks for February 2011

It’s February, readers, and it’s cold (for most of us anyway ;-)), so here are 5 of my top picks for this month that you can bundle up with.

Pale Demon by Kim Harrison
Feb 22

Plot Summary (from Goodreads.com): Condemned to death for black magic and shunned, Rachel Morgan has three days to somehow get to the annual witches convention in San Francisco and clear her name. If she fails, the only way she can escape death is to live in the demonic ever after . . . for ever after. Banned from the flight lists, Rachel teams up with elven tycoon Trent Kalamack, headed for the West Coast for his own mysterious business. But Rachel isn’t the only passanger along for the ride. Can a witch, an elf, a living vampire, and a pixy in one car survive for over 2,300 miles? And that’s not counting the assassin on their tail.
A fearsome demon walks the sunlight, freed after centuries of torment to slay the innocent and devour souls. But his ultimate prey is Rachel Morgan. While the powerful witch with nerves of steel will do whatever it takes to stay alive, even embracing her own demonic nature may not be enough to save her.

Demon Trapper’s Daughter by Jana G. Oliver
Feb 1

Plot Summary (from Goodreads.com): Riley Blackthorne just needs a chance to prove herself – and that’s exactly what the demons are counting on…Seventeen-year-old Riley, the only daughter of legendary Demon Trapper, Paul Blackthorne, has always dreamed of following in her father’s footsteps. The good news is, with human society seriously disrupted by economic upheaval and Lucifer increasing the number of demons in all major cities, Atlanta’s local Trappers’ Guild needs all the help they can get – even from a girl. When she’s not keeping up with her homework or trying to manage her growing crush on fellow apprentice, Simon, Riley’s out saving distressed citizens from foul-mouthed little devils – Grade One Hellspawn only, of course, per the strict rules of the Guild. Life’s about as normal as can be for the average demon-trapping teen. But then a Grade Five Geo-Fiend crashes Riley’s routine assignment at a library, jeopardizing her life and her chosen livelihood. And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, sudden tragedy strikes the Trappers’ Guild, spinning Riley down a more dangerous path than she ever could have imagined. As her whole world crashes down around her, who can Riley trust with her heart – and her life?

The Iron Thorn (The Iron Codex) by Caitlin Kittredge
Feb 22

Plot Summary(from Goodreads.com): In the city of Lovecraft, the Proctors rule and a great Engine turns below the streets, grinding any resistance to their order to dust. The necrovirus is blamed for Lovecraft’s epidemic of madness, for the strange and eldritch creatures that roam the streets after dark, and for everything that the city leaders deem Heretical — born of the belief in magic and witchcraft. And for Aoife Grayson, her time is growing shorter by the day. Aoife Grayson’s family is unique, in the worst way — every one of them, including her mother and her elder brother Conrad, has gone mad on their 16th birthday. And now, a ward of the state, and one of the only female students at the School of Engines, she is trying to pretend that her fate can be different.

Dead Waters by Anton Strout
Feb 22

Plot Summary (from Amazon.com): The fourth book in the Simon Canderous series. Simon Canderous, of the Department of Extraordinary Affairs, is used to fighting vampires and zombies. But the strange murder of a professor has everyone stumped. And it’s making some people crazy. Literally.

Darkeva’s Notes: I have yet to get into this series, but I’ve heard great things from Simon R. Green fans, so I think I’ll start with the first book. Also, doesn’t the guy on the cover look like David Beckham? Kinda cute :-)

This Side of the Grave (Night Huntress, Book 5) by Jeaniene Frost Feb 22

Plot Summary(from Goodreads.com): Danger waits on both sides of the grave. Half-vampire Cat Crawfield and her vampire husband Bones have fought for their lives, as well as for their relationship. But just when they’ve triumphed over the latest battle, Cat’s new and unexpected abilities threaten to upset a long-standing balance . . . With the mysterious disappearance of vampires, rumours abound that a species war is brewing. A zealot is inciting tensions between the vampires and ghouls, and if these two powerful groups clash, innocent mortals could become collateral damage. Now Cat and Bones are forced to seek help from a dangerous “ally”—the ghoul queen of New Orleans herself. But the price of her assistance may prove more treacherous than even the threat of a supernatural war . . . to say nothing of the repercussions Cat never imagined.

Darkeva’s Notes: I know, I know, most of you are gunning for Bones, and don’t get me wrong, he’s an interesting guy, but I’m gunning for Marie Laveau. I thought that Ms. Frost handled her…differently in “Destined for an Early Grave” so that’s what I’m most looking forward to.

What’s everyone else really antsy for? I know the Harrison and Frost fans have been gearing up for a major *squee* session, and many people are looking forward to the return of Trent in The Hollows series, and of course, the previously mentioned Bones in the Night Huntress series, but Lovecraft fans will be in for a treat with Kittredge’s newest offering, I should think :-)

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