Friday, August 31, 2012
Bastard Reaction: Royal Street by Suzanne Johnson
I've always been fascinated with the idea of fantasy stories including natural disasters as part of the narrative. Not the usual "storm is coming, I feel something terrible is about to happen" kind of event, but just a random tornado suddenly touching down in the middle of a scene, or maybe a hurricane comes to destroy a town and be just that, a natural storm without all the added plot-device baggage. It was with that in mind that I got interested in Royal Street by Suzanne Johnson with a story that takes place during the time of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. It's the first of the Sentinels of New Orleans series, and laid the foundation of what could become a very entertaining series.
DJ, a deputy sentinel, is a wizard apprentice under the guidance of Gerry the acting New Orleans sentinel. They protect the city from preternatural beings that have crossed over to our world. As Hurricane Katrina hits, Gerry goes missing. DJ, who had evacuated the city, is tasked to return to the city to find her missing teacher while partnering up with an FBI agent, who may have his own agenda and may have been sent to spy on her by organization that governs them. Once arrived in New Orleans they have to deal with the disastrous aftermath of the hurricane and a serial killer who's on the loose. If that wasn't enough, Katrina has weakened the boundaries between the planes that keep the preternatural beings at bay.
Tackling an event like Hurricane Katrina is tricky. There's no easy way to approach it. Some consideration has to be given to those that have suffered, and at the same time try to not let it distract from the focus of the story you want to tell. With that in mind, it was evident that Johnson struggled to balance the inclusion of the happenings of what it was like during the time of Katrina with developing the mystery/thriller portions of the plot. I personally found it interesting to relive some of what went on during the hurricane through DJ's eyes. I also thought it was handled with tact and was informative, but not overwhelmingly so. Suzanne Johnson had apparently lived in New Orleans for many years, so there's a personal touch to be found here to put everything into proper context.
The pacing was slow though, but I didn't find it dull by any measure. I can see were many would have problem with it, but I didn't think it a major problem; but it was a problem. Kinda of a double edged sword because you want the Katrina exposure, but at times it impeded the momentum of the story. By the same token, I enjoyed the tangents through much of it. I found DJ to be a fun and quite even-keeled narrator, which is interesting considering she's an empath. She never gets too high or too low through the narration and it served the balance between the events of Katrina and the rest of the story well; and when she goes to emotional extremes, they don't last long, which I loved. There's plenty of funny scenes throughout the novel to contrast the somber moments.
I found the biggest problem with the novel was the mystery plot aspects. Though it kept us guessing about certain things throughout it, I thought everything became transparent earlier than I would've liked. Not that big of an issue at the moment, but I thought there was a detachment from the case through the novel that made me not care about many of the events surrounding the story. Particularly evident with the serial killer victims, didn't care for them. We weren't really immersed in the investigation, we weren't made to care for the victims, as such the investigation wasn't of much interest. What held the story together was the wondering of what happened to Gerry and DJ's personal issues she's to overcome.
The story had some good action though. I would've liked to see just a bit more of it and maybe a few more scenes that would've made the novel a bit more suspenseful with a heightened sense of danger, but other than that quite pleased with what Johnson provided. I really think DJ will become one kickass character as the series continues, but we'll see how she keeps developing her powers.
The world-building was excellent, and it's mainly what has me thinking this is a very promising series. She has also injected into the story a preternatural being called "historical undead" which have been quite lively so far, and insures that we'll be exposed to plenty of flavorful characters as the series continues. There's mention of all the usual supernatural beings too, but they haven't made an appearance yet for the most part. In many regards it reminds me of The Dresden Files world now that I think of it, differentiated with the unique touches Johnson has given it; combining all these with the rich history of New Orleans and how well it's been incorporated to the aftermath of Katrina is a great start.
Royal Street introduced us to some good characters that will be entertaining and pleasant to follow. Character interaction was good and fun through much of it. As mentioned previously, never gets too high or low emotionally for an extensive span of time. Was worried about this in particular with DJ being an empath, since it had the potential to become a bit too touchy-feely for me, but Suzanne Johnson handled much of it to my liking. There's some romantic interests here, more than one actually, but it's been kept light so far and it hasn't bother me. We'll see how much of the focus it'll have going forward, but not too worried at the moment with the current precedent.
I really enjoyed DJ as the narrator and as a character. At times a bit too impulsive, which is all right. She recognizes it as a flaw herself, so it's all good. Makes her a bit unpredictable. Even though at times she tries to rationalize some of her actions as prudent. Going forward I think she needs to be cleaned up a bit because she's clearly not an idiot, but has plenty of dumbass moments. One in particularly grated on me. DJ warded her house and as means to disable it used a word that would be the equivalent of using "password" as the password for your email account. Sorry if I indirectly called some of you a dumbass, but probably well deserved. In all, despite this I think she'll be a good character to follow.
All this to say that yes, Royal Street is very much a flawed novel, but I think it's one that's very much worth the read. I enjoyed it thoroughly flaws an all. I'll recommend it with little hesitation to all urban fantasy fans, and this being Suzanne's debut, I'd imagine we can expect things to get better from here. The foundation for the series is now in place, and it's a strong one. Early reactions to the sequel River Road have been positive and seem to agree that it's better than the precursory novel. Suzanne Johnson may just have winner in her hands with the Sentinels of New Orleans series.
Thoughts and prayers for those currently affected by Hurricane Isaac. Donations can be made to the Red Cross.
Also a percentage of her River Road royalties has been pledged by the author to help on the relief from this hurricane and an oil spill. Have just learned that the setting in the sequel has been destroyed by Hurricane Isaac, Plaquemines Parish. Details can be found here.
Buy a copy of Royal Street from The Book Depository.
Please visit Suzanne Johnson's website and blog for more information.