River Road by Suzanne Johnson
(Description nicked from B&N.com.)
“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.”
I remember reading the first book in this series and liking it, and yet I also thought that it had a little too much going on. The novel tackled Hurricane Katrina, set up a magical system and its politics, defined the kinds of magical creatures that live there, and juggled three possible relationships for the main character. While it all meshed together fairly well, it contributed to the book feeling much like the complicated set-up to a longer tale.
This newest one, however, is more settled in tone. There is certainly enough action and intrigue to keep readers interested, but there isn’t the overwhelming sense that you have to take in all kinds of information and background just to keep up. In River Road, Drusilla has been a sentinel for a little while and is portrayed as more sure of herself, although echoes of uncertainly do haunt her occasionally. And although her relationships haven’t changed—she still has three men interested in her—they too feel less chaotic. I actually approve of skipping ahead in time the way Johnson did, because she’s able to write her characters with a greater degree of maturity and familiarity with each other and their jobs.
I enjoyed the murder mystery in this story more than I did the kidnapping of Drusilla’s mentor in the last book. This time around, it’s more straightforward: there are dead bodies, and the characters have to figure out who the killer is, without dealing with too much magical catastrophe at the same time. Woven though this part of the story are some intriguing hints about a newly arrived character who is likely more than he seems. It looks like the author is setting up a longer story arc now that she’s gotten her setting established.
This novel brings in some new supernatural races: the elves, the nymphs, and the mermen. If you’ve ever wondered what a Cajun merman would be like, wonder no more. It’s nice that Johnson is moving beyond the all-too-common werewolves and vampires, and it’s also nice to see her using mermen instead of the stereotypical mermaids. Believe me, the nymphs fill that role quite well.
I also liked that Drusilla is strong enough and smart enough to not constantly need rescuing, although she does get in over her head sometimes. Even so, she doesn’t need to always be bailed out of difficulties, she packs some fairly powerful magic without turning into an all-powerful juggernaut, and she’s often seen doing research to get her spells correct instead of just winging it and hoping for the best. I find that I like her a lot.
I’m pleased to see that Johnson has made some great strides in her writing. River Road is a good read, eschewing most of the common urban fantasy elements to bring in the flavor of New Orleans in some very unique ways. I’m getting more and more fond of the South as a fantasy setting!
Also by this author: Royal Street
This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on January 17, 2013.