I usually cringe at the thought of starting a book series midway but somehow I missed that 'Pirate's Alley' was the fourth in the 'Sentinels of New Orleans' series. However, I enjoyed it so much that 'Royal Street', 'River Road' and 'Elysian Fields' are now sitting next to me, courtesy of Amazon Prime, ready to fill in the background that I now know, at least, a little about.
If I was surprised at how accessible this book four is to new readers, with author Suzanne Johnson succinctly explaining what went down in previous books without, I believe, spoiling them, I was also surprised at how enjoyable it was given how derivative it also happens to be.
It would take a rare reader to get far into this, or presumably the earlier volumes, without Charlaine Harris and her 'Southern Vampire' series leaping to mind. Like those books, we're in Louisiana with a kick-ass female lead with special powers who's caught up in the middle of a war between different supernatural species. Even the tone of the writing is similar, but it's done well enough to work.
Here, the lead is DJ Jaco, a sentinel tasked with guarding the borders between supernatural worlds, which sit close to each other without ever being visible, like the boundary between our world and that of the fae behind Sookie's house in Harris's books. However, these borders were blown wide open by Hurricane Katrina and now New Orleans is full of pretes or preternatural creatures like vampires, fairies and elves, along with, best of all, the historical remembered, not that the regular human folk have a clue.
While Sookie lived in a vampire dominated world, DJ's is run by the wizards, who count her among their number. If anyone really challenges them for dominance and for prominence in the books, it's these characters from history, perhaps the biggest reason that Johnson has managed to make this series thrive rather than just lurk in Harris's successful shadow. Most obvious amongst them is Jean Laffite, the New Orleans pirate, erm… privateer, but others make appearances too. Harris only had one historical character in her books, as far as I recall, and she gave him a new name.
Johnson's theory is that if someone is remembered strongly enough by enough people, they get to live on in substance. They can feel pain and they can die, but they always come back, as long as they're remembered. That's why Laffite, one of New Orleans' most legendary local characters, is still going strong even after DJ killed him in an earlier book, and is apparently becoming more and more prominent in this series, demanding more attention and a more substantial role. I'm going to be interested to find how that grew from the first book to this one.
I don't want to talk too much about the details of the story, because that will inherently include spoilers for anyone who hasn't read the first three books. That Jean Laffite is still around and getting more important really isn't one, as the historical remembered can't die, but I don't want to go any further than that and the fact that DJ is tasked with babysitting him for reasons of supernatural intrigue.
Suffice it to say that there's never a dull moment here, in all the ways you might expect if you're a fan of the Sookie Stackhouse novels. Everything that unfolds does so quickly; there isn't a lot of time between the first and last pages. There's a lot of intrigue, the Interspecies Council riddled with treachery and deceit, some members of which are up for trial at the beginning of this book and the cause of chaos throughout. There's a great deal of action, with buildings exploding wherever the council meets. And, of course, DJ is right at the heart of it all, juggling her responsibilities as a sentinel with her romantic entanglements.
I came to the Sookie Stackhouse books early, intrigued by the way Charlaine Harris applied Laurell K Hamilton's concept of vampires as legal citizens to a more cosy mystery setting. That's perhaps the only component part that Suzanne Johnson didn't borrow for this series, as she keeps everything else: the interspecies squabbling, the constant power struggles and the kick-ass chick who has feelings for a few different folk from a few different supernatural origins. All of this still unfolds behind the scenes, old school style, where the public simply isn't aware of anything weird going on around them.
I like DJ Jaco. She's sassy, tough and take-charge, but she's far from perfect, which allows her a progression as the story rolls on from book to book. She had magical powers to begin with, as a wizard and sentinel, but she gained more of them before this book began and she's still coming to terms with both their positive and negative sides. Nothing comes without a catch in the supernatural world.
I don't like her boyfriend much, but perhaps that's because he doesn't get too much to do here. He's someone about whom I'm keen on finding out more when I catch up with the earlier books, but I won't say who he is because I don't know yet if he was her boyfriend throughout. If he has a challenger here for her affections, it's Jean Laffite, whom she's killed once already. I adore this concept, but know that it's not going to find resolution quickly, whichever way Johnson takes things in future volumes. Maybe the current flame is like Bill, while the privateer is like Eric. Such comparisons always want to leap out and make themselves known.
So, as clearly derivative as this book is, it's also a capably written, fast-paced, thoroughly enjoyable ride and I'm eager to go back to the first three books in the series, which I now have ready to go. Johnson writes with style, charm and wit, a combination not to be discounted, and she's growing her world and the characters within it very well indeed. On the basis of this book alone, she seems to be willing to allow them to shape where they go and what they do rather than force them to follow her direction.
I especially love the way that Johnson weaves her fictional characters in and amongst historical ones, reinventing them in ways that delighted me. I absolutely adored the idea to have a character bring in the flamboyant Truman Capote as an alibi. I can think of a few other New Orleans legends who don't make an appearance here but could easily do so in future books, and very possibly already have in previous ones. I look forward to finding out which ones will show up and how they'll do so. I'm in for the long haul on this series. ~~ Hal C F Astell
Click here for a review of River Road and here for Elysian Fields.