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Book Review: River Road (Sentinels of New Orleans Book 2) by Suzanne Johnson

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This book review is part of the New Orleans Reading Challenge 2013, hosted by Midnyte Reader, which you can read more about here.


Suzanne-Johnson-River-Road

River Road (Sentinels of New Orleans, Book 2)
by Suzanne Johnson
$11.53 (Amazon, paperback) | $12.40 (Amazon Kindle)
TOR Books
Release Date: November 13, 2012 (original hardcover)
Review copy received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Please note, if you haven’t read book one in the Sentinels of New Orleans series, River Road, you may wish to skip this review until you’re caught up because I will be discussing some plot elements and spoilers!

Plot Description:

Hurricane Katrina is long gone, but the preternatural storm rages on in New Orleans. New species from the Beyond moved into Louisiana after the hurricane destroyed the borders between worlds, and it falls to wizard sentinel Drusilla Jaco and her partner, Alex Warin, to keep the preternaturals peaceful and the humans unaware. But a war is brewing between two clans of Cajun merpeople in Plaquemines Parish, and down in the swamp, DJ learns, there’s more stirring than angry mermen and the threat of a were-gator.

Wizards are dying, and someone—or something—from the Beyond is poisoning the waters of the mighty Mississippi, threatening the humans who live and work along the river. DJ and Alex must figure out what unearthly source is contaminating the water and who—or what—is killing the wizards. Is it a malcontented merman, the naughty nymph, or some other critter altogether? After all, DJ’s undead suitor, the pirate Jean Lafitte, knows his way around a body or two.

It’s anything but smooth sailing on the bayou as the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series continues.

Review:
Before I start the review of River Road, I would like to commend the author for arranging for a percentage of the royalties from the book to go to the Greater New Orleans Foundation for its Gulf Coast oil spill fund as much of this book is set in Plaquemines Parish, which suffered tremendous damage during and after Hurricane Katrina.

Things kick off with our protagonist, DJ Jaco, at the historic Hotel Monteleone where notorious pirate Jean Lafitte, who we met in book one, is waiting for DJ. He’s staying in the Eudora Welty suite, but although he’s in the lap of luxury, he’s got problems, namely two feuding merpeople clans. Jean and DJ’s partner, Alex, still despise one another so DJ knows she’ll have to limit their interactions, making for tension in the plot and on a romantic level.

Jean Lafitte is more endearing in this book and as he grew on me, I think that he will grow on many readers with his charm. Although DJ is still vehemently opposed to liking Jean, she does have to go out on a date with him as per their agreement from the first book, and she spends much of River Road denying that she has feelings for Alex, a shifter, mostly because she’s gunning for Jake, who *spoiler alert* became a loup-garou at the end of book one. Let’s just say he’s not adapting particularly well. It takes her most of the book to realize that it’s not going to be easy to maintain any kind of a relationship with him, let alone a romantic one. Alex spends much of the book treating DJ like his property, which pushes her away, but he also sends mixed signals, which confuse her.

Although I enjoyed DJ’s romantic quandaries, it felt a bit odd to me to have Alex jealous of Jean Lafitte, with the implication being that he doesn’t trust the pirate (and with good reason) but also he’s threatened by the prospect of DJ choosing to be with Jean. But Alex doesn’t seem jealous of DJ’s interest in Jake, with whom she also has a date, and to further complicate matters, DJ has agreed to pose as Alex’s girlfriend for an upcoming family reunion, but he does have feelings for her even if he’s pretending not to. To be fair, at least Jake asks at one point whether there’s anything between her and Alex, which made a bit more sense.

The merpeople are Cajuns, which adds good flavour to the cast of characters. As well, they have Houma Native American heritage, which makes them even more awesome. There are two families that are feuding, the Villeres and the Delachaises. We venture into bayou and swampland territory where they find a corpse on the shore who died in a particularly gruesome way, and DJ detects a wizard signature from it. We soon learn that there’s more history between wizards and merpeople than initially revealed. I also liked that the loup-garou in this universe aren’t just your average werewolves. They’re larger and don’t join packs, not to mention oher werewolves are scared of them. They also live in the Beyond, Johnson’s alternate dimension where Old Orleans exists, as introduced in the first book. Loup-garous can also shift into their beast form in an instant.

There’s also some Greek mythology mixed in this time with a nymph, as well as the River Styx (as in the one in the Underworld), and also an Elven Synod who don’t like the fact that DJ, who is a wizard, can use Elf magic due to her heritage. They think the Elven staff she uses is one of four, belonging to the clan of the fire elves. No one else can claim or use the staff as long as DJ is alive, which seems to make the Elves even angrier. She even encounters one of the Elves, Mace Banyan, in the Beyond, and suffice it to say it’s not exactly the most pleasant meeting.

She works closely with both merpeople clans, but in particular with Rene Delachaise, with whom she has to form a special bond. Things come to a head as the murders of wizards and a woman who claimed to be human but DJ suspected wasn’t point increasingly in the direction of one person, and everything leads to an intense, suspenseful ending that makes me excited to devour the next book, Elysian Fields, as soon as I can.

If you want urban fantasy that incorporates New Orleans into the setting and makes it a character in and of itself in the book, you need to pick up a copy of River Road, and once you get to the ending, you won’t be able to resist picking up Elysian Fields, for which I am participating in the blog tour as part of Bewitching Book Tours (it releases on August 13, 2013).

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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.

Review:
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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