Royal Street by Suzanne Johnson
There’s something about Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans that draws storytellers, although admittedly, there still aren’t many stories written about it to date. The memories of what happened are still pretty raw, and an author must tread carefully if their book is going to touch on that event. Royal Street, penned by Katrina survivor Suzanne Johnson, looks at the magical implications of that shattering storm.
(Description nicked from B&N.com.)
“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.”
This novel’s strongest aspect is its worldbuilding. Johnson does an incredibly good job at not only using a broken New Orleans as a backdrop, but she also stays true to the spiritual and mystical roots of the city. The formidable voodoo priestess Marie Laveau makes a couple of appearances, as does one of the more powerful gods, or loa, Baron Samedi. The spirituality of the city is also apparent in the presence of what are called the “historical dead”—people like Jean Lafitte, who can manifest in our world because of the power of belief and who live in a shadow reality called “Old Orleans”. Although the city isn’t nearly as old as many of those in Europe, something about it seems ancient and brooding, and Johnson plays into this feeling quite skillfully.
I was also intrigued by the magic system that the author is building. There are different kinds of mages, each with different primary strengths, and there’s a class system (structured like a modern business) that is hinted at through interactions between DJ and the Council of Elders. While this structure is nothing new, there are enough original details to make me curious to see more. With other creatures such as Fae and vampires thrown into the mix, I think Johnson has the opportunity to make a fairly unique magical “society” as she continues the series.
The one thing that I didn’t like about Royal Street was the romance. It follows a fairly typical “I saw him and was struck at first sight by how handsome and magnetic he was” and then spends tons of time disliking him and lusting after him by turns. On top of this, DJ shows interest in the main love interest’s cousin, and she has the hots for Lafitte as well. It’s all a bit much and makes her come across as shallow. Plus, this hopping from person to person never allows any of the relationships to gain any depth.
And finally, one thing that surprised me (given how the novel is hyped as having to do with Hurricane Katrina) is that the storm is completely skipped over. At the end of one chapter, it’s on the way, and then suddenly the story picks up two weeks later. With the way it supposedly messes with magic and with the barriers between worlds, I think the author missed a great opportunity to have some really dramatic scenes during the hurricane’s landfall. I understand that the devastation wrecked by Katrina is still painful for many, but those of us who have never lived through a hurricane have no conception of what it’s like, and getting some small bit of the story to convey that would make the novel even more powerful. I will also say, though, that the scenes depicting the aftermath are affecting in their own right.
While not without some issues, Royal Street has great worldbuilding and an interesting magic system to attract readers. Johnson has drawn on her own experiences to paint the gut-wrenching results of a massive hurricane and intertwine them with her story in a way that honors the struggles of New Orleans in the time since. I’ll be watching for the next book in this series.
Also by this author: River Road
This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on May 3, 2012.