Saturday, March 10, 2012

Review: Royal Street by Suzanne Johnson

Genre: supernatural fiction
Series: Sentinels of New Orleans #1
Pages: 336 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: expected April 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 2.5/5

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.

I went into this UF/PNR pretty hopeful: spunky heroine, a secret wizard organization, Hurricane Katrina, and an undead sexy pirate. What's not to love, besides the Louisiana location (seriously, hasn't another paranormal series coughSookiecough dominated that locale for the last 7 years?)? Well, if you're an apparently unsatisfied reader like me, three out of those four items did not live up to expectations. DJ failed to impress me throughout her misadventures, and the much-advertised Hurricane Katrina lacked the emotional pull the author was aiming for, and this is no Harry-Potter level of wizardry. Suzanne Johnson has the large  and unenviable task of setting up a series from this introductory book, and based on the "strengths" of Royal Street, I wish her much luck and patience. '

It's never a good sign when you can't even agree with the heroine on the nickname she gives herself. Drusilla Jaco prefers to go by "DJ" but in my head, she was always Dru. As in, "Dru, why are you doing that?", "Really, Dru, really?!" and "Don't you want to maybe think that through before you do it, Dru?" Dru is a deputy sentinel and is oh-so-very aware of the first word in her title. She doesn't believe in herself or her abilities and feels crippled when her mentor goes missing in the aftermath of Katrina. My problems with this novel really began with Dru: despite my chummy nickname, this is not a character I invested in, even marginally. I managed to finish this because I was powered by an interest to see how everything would wrap up, rather than a desire to see Dru grow and change as a person. She's also mind-numbingly slow to put things together - SPOILER - example: when her supposedly dead mentor appears to her and tells her to lie to everyone, especially the authorities, she doesn't take this as a sign of something bad. She just blithely accepts his word and goes along. 

In an ironic twist, it's not DJ, or her partner Sentinel Alexander that is the character with the most life. No that honor goes to Jean Lafitte, a pirate who is technically...dead. He's a bastard alright from the first moment he speaks, but damnit, at least he is an interesting and dynamic one.  In a cast of so few, where I dislike most of the few, Jean was the one character I would root for continually. He didn't add the most to the story, but when I wanted to slap Dru for her wishywashy romantic love triangle BETWEEN COUSINS, Jean was the only tolerable part of the page. The love-triangle isn't as pronounced as some UF/PNR novels, but is fairly shameless and stupid on DJ's part. Within pages, Dru decides she doesn't want Alex, and goes on a date with his cousin Jake, only to be jealous of a girl looking at Alex while she is on the date with Jake. What? Really? At that point, I just thew up my hands and accepted that DJ was not a girl/character to whom I would ever relate.

If it was all just characterization issues with Royal Street, I could've easily seen a 3 or maybe even a 3.5 rating for this novel. However, the twists and turns of the story are sadly predictable and telegraphed to the reader prematurely. I foresaw the resolutions to the main plot as well as most by plots easily and early on - I mostly continued reading to corroborate my correct guesses and see in what capacity Jean LaFitte would sidle into DJ's life. Perhaps best along with Jean, the villains of the piece are worth reading about. Unlike their cliched main character counterparts, Marie Leaveau and Baron Samedi are interesting and unpredictable for the duration of the novel. The murders committed at the heart of the mystery are semi-interesting but tend to get lost in the endlessssss searches for Gerry and the non-ending back-and-forth reporting to the Elders and waiting for a response. So much of this book is research or reporting or waiting that I got bored and would set it aside for several hours before returning to the story.

The world that Johnson has envisioned for her characters to play within is barely sketched out. It seems to be the same world as the one we actually live in (notable appearances: Louis Armstrong, Marie Laveau), but with wizards, vampires, undead, ghosts and other supernatural ilk. The wizards themselves were given a bare framework to illustrate the mechanics of the Sentinels program that was slowly fleshed out as the novel progressed. I liked the separation of talents into different spheres of influence (green congress versus red congress, etc.), though it does severely limit the possible scope of Dru's abilities. SPOILER! I also have to wonder why other European sentinels did not come to help with the influx of supernaturality after Hurricane Katrina. It is mentioned that American sentinels went to Europe in 1976 for the "Wizard War", so why is no help forthcoming in this apparently most drastic of times for New Orleans, with 'pretes' and historical undead just waltzing into the city? Holes like this, in the logic of the main plot of the entire novel, just distract me. I kept wondering why the author would mention a possibility to fix every thing (call them in to help with the pretes AND finding Gerry! Both plotlines wrapped up in thirty pages) and then ignore it for the rest of the book. It was...odd.

This is the first in a series, and one I doubt I will pursue. Though my first impression formed ("I like that dead, dastardly pirate!") was one of the few favorable ones I took away from Royal Street, I believe this is a novel that will find a wide audience. Dru is far from a horrible protagonist, and some will genuinely like her wide-eyed and innocent approach to life - this is just not for me. 2/5 and a "no, thank you" - I will wonder what Jean LaFitte gets up to in his afterlife on Earth, but curiosity won't make me pick up book two when its out.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for this review. I'm currently at 38% in this book, and I think I'm going to end up pretty much where you did. LaFitte is definitely the most interesting character for me so far. :-/

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    Replies
    1. It's such a shame because the ideas here are good! The execution and characterization are just majorly lacking. I hope you find something more up your alley soon!

      And LaFitte is easily the best part of the whole deal.

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