I didn't find Suzanne Johnson's 'Sentinels of New Orleans' series until its fourth volume, 'Pirate's Alley', which was released in April 2015. I found it thoroughly enjoyable, that rare example of a series book that entertains even when the reader has little background invested into its established characters. My first thought after finishing it was to seek out the earlier books in the series to see how it had grown.
Partly that was because of the quality of Johnson's writing, which is smooth and enticing in the pulp tradition. Partly it was because this fourth book mentioned enough of what had gone before to grab my interest and send me off to read the full stories. Partly, though, it was because it felt derivative, Johnson's supernatural Louisiana eerily reminiscent of another supernatural Louisiana that Charlaine Harris had created for her 'Southern Vampire' books with Sookie Stackhouse.
So I was keen to find out how the series began, back in 2012 with 'Royal Street' and to discover the starting point from which the series grew into familiar territory. I wasn't entirely surprised to find that this original book isn't reminiscent of Harris in the slightest. In fact, for all that it's urban fantasy with its wizards, shapeshifters and historical undead, it's surprisingly effective as a non-fantasy account of what it must have been like to be resident in a city slammed so hard and so fast by a power greater even than those owned by its fictional inhabitants.
I should emphasise that Hurricane Katrina is never the focus, so this book wouldn't work as a Discovery Channel exploration of the unimaginable power of Mother Nature, but it and the havoc that it wreaks is a constant, fascinating and unsettling background. We're in a big city, one which I remember well from before Katrina as a tangible creature, one that seemed alive itself and in command of what happened in its ever-active streets. Yet here, Katrina has driven almost everyone into exile and left those streets quiet and eerily empty. As the waters retreated, I recalled Joseph Conrad's description in 'The Secret Agent' of a 'descent into a slimy aquarium from which the water had been run off'. It's a wonderfully surreal backdrop to an urban fantasy story, a natural springboard for imagination.
Against this backdrop, we meet a surprisingly small cast.
Our focus is DJ (or Drusilla) Jaco, a junior wizard and sentinel whose task it is to police the boundaries between the world we know and the Beyond, where pretes (or preternatural creatures) are kept deliberately apart from us. That used to be a simple and boring job until Katrina arrived and blew those boundaries wide open, devastating them as much as everything else in New Orleans. Suddenly nothing is boring, as a lack of regular people is countered by a preponderence of creatures aiming to take advantage of the opportunities that a lack of boundaries present.
First of them is Jean Lafitte, the real life privateer who's a palpable presence in the fourth book but less endearing here. He comes for DJ with evil intent but grows with the page count into someone intriguing enough to warrant a stronger role in future volumes. He's set up in the first chapter to be a stereotypical villain, but that's not how he leaves the book; he's quite obviously a gift of a complex character to a writer and it's hardly surprising that Johnson hasn't let him vanish from her storylines.
Next up is Alex Warin, an enforcer sent by the Elders to assist and protect DJ. He's appropriate because he's a local himself, a highly trained FBI agent and a... well, let's just say that the reveal halfway through of his supernatural qualifications isn't surprising in the slightest, even with a deliberate red herring thrown in early, but it still shouldn't be spoiled. His cousin, Jake Warin, who knows nothing of the supernatural world but helps out DJ and Alex anyway on clearly insufficient information because that's just who he is, is annoyingly overlooked but then this is his origin story so it's understandable. I'd like to see him grow with the series.
Playing the role of the MacGuffin is Gerald St Simon, DJ's mentor and boss, who goes mysteriously missing during the worst of the hurricane. That turns this first book into as much of a mystery as an urban fantasy, albeit not a particularly deep one, especially given how restricted the cast is. 'Scooby Doo' was always easy to figure out just from the cast list alone and this works likewise. I didn't buy into how a native New Orleans wizard didn't know who Baron Samedi was, but he works capably well as the villain.
While this does have a beginning, middle and memorable end, so functions as a standalone novel, it works better as the start to a series, easing us into a world that was always going to be wilder and more complex with each book. Just as book four sent me in search of the first three, book one would have pushed me towards its successor even before it was published. DJ in particular has plenty of growth room, with more potential than she knows. It's her and the world she inhabits that leap out here, along with Jean Lafitte.
Alex is too straightforward to be engaging. Going back to 'Scooby Doo', did anyone watch it for Fred? No. It's easy to see even this early how hard it will be for Alex to remain a focus later in the series. He's too much like the cookie cutter leads in Hollywood movies, great to pin onto your wall if you're a thirteen-year-old girl but inconsequential in the grand scheme of things and far less interesting than the characters with whom he interacts.
Here the most interesting characters are the historical undead. I mentioned in my review of 'Pirate's Alley' that I could easily put together a list of such characters that ought to show up in the series alongside Jean Lafitte. Well, it turns out that Johnson kicked off her series with a couple of the key ones, including Marie Laveau and Louis Armstrong. Their inclusion and their treatment here, especially the latter, bodes well for future books and, frankly, is likely to remain a highlight however long the series runs.
All in all, this is a successful beginning to a series. It sets a world in motion, sparked believably from a devastating real life event, which works as a glorious backdrop for supernatural shenanigans. Perhaps this one is a little too obvious, but then first outings into new worlds often are. Now I want to see how Johnson expanded on it with 'River Road'. ~~ Hal C F Astell