Royal Street: Great world-building

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsurban fantasy book reviews Royal Street by Suzanne JohnsonRoyal Street by Suzanne Johnson

Royal Street, by Suzanne Johnson, is the first in a new urban fantasy series set in New Orleans. Drusilla Jaco, a.k.a. DJ, is one of the city’s two wizard sentinels, which means she’s assigned to keep an eye on paranormal trouble in town. The other sentinel is Gerry, Drusilla’s mentor and father figure. With Hurricane Katrina on the way, DJ evacuates while Gerry stays behind. When the storm passes, DJ returns to a devastated New Orleans to find Gerry missing, new breaches opened between this world and the Beyond, and a serial killer who leaves voodoo paraphernalia at the scenes of the crimes.

Johnson’s world-building is great — both the real and the invented. She takes us right into New Orleans immediately pre- and post-Katrina and gives us an idea of what it was like to be there. As for the invented, there are some original touches here in terms of the magic. Johnson introduces the “historical undead,” who are kind of like ghosts, only corporeal, and live in “Old Orleans” in the Beyond unless summoned to our world — or unless, as in the aftermath of the hurricane, the barrier between the worlds is damaged. This is a really creative way to incorporate some iconic New Orleans personalities into the novel without going the cliché route of making them all vampires.

Another element I liked is the division of the wizards into color-coded “Congresses.” DJ is a Green Congress wizard, which means she deals mainly in herbal potions, while Gerry is Red Congress so he can do flashier, more immediate effects. Each approach has its strengths and weaknesses. DJ’s magic takes longer and is more subtle, but sometimes this is an advantage in a situation where Red Congress magic would just blow everything up. There are references to a couple of the other Congresses as well.

Even with these promising elements, though, it took me a long time to read Royal Street. It moves at an extremely slow pace until almost the very end. Part of this can be chalked up to Katrina, and delays caused by having to borrow a boat, not having power, etc. help to illustrate just how great a blow the hurricane struck. But the book also slows down for avenues of investigation that prove fruitless, for an unnecessary love triangle, and for arguments between DJ and her new partner, Alex. Lots and lots of arguments. Some of this dialogue is funny, and would probably be even more fun in an audio edition. Much of it, though, is just annoying and makes me like both DJ and Alex less. The murders don’t gut-punch us the way they should, either, because the victims are not fleshed out at all. When the momentum finally does pick up, the story is over almost too soon. It’s a little anticlimactic.

I also had trouble understanding DJ. Part of it is the way she caroms back and forth between the two love interests. I also just didn’t get why she made some of the decisions she did. One example that can be explained quickly and doesn’t spoil much of the plot: DJ sets wards around her house to keep out supernatural threats, particularly the pirate Jean Lafitte. The password to get past the wards is Lafitte. This made no sense to me, as I could think of several different ways that he or one of his minions might speak his name while trying to get in… and then voila, they’d be in. This never actually comes back to bite DJ, but I kept expecting it to.

I had some issues with Royal Street, but I found Johnson’s New Orleans and her supernatural world compelling enough that I will probably read further in the series. I just hope that the love triangle is resolved quickly and doesn’t overshadow the rest of the story.

Sentinels of New Orleans — (2012-2016) Publisher: 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.

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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