THE BALLAD OF PERILOUS GRAVES by Alex Jennings
Orbit, pb, £8.99
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
It is often said that cities are alive, that each has a personality of its own. True many of them have distinct features that make them recognizable and distinct from any other. Many authors produce novels where a city is also a central character. In N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, cities become alive when circumstances are right. Alex Jennings has chosen New Orleans as his living city.
While there have been novels before about alternative cities co-existing in the same place and the leakages between the two dimensions. Most people think of jazz when New Orleans is mentioned. Nola is the alternative, magical version of the city. It exists because of the magic of music. It is where Perry (Perilous) Graves lives with his sister Brendy and their parents. His friend, Peaches, is a strange girl who lives alone in a dilapidated house with many animals. Anyone familiar with the real New Orleans will recognize many of the features, but gradually, the differences make themselves manifest. Graffiti tags don’t stay on the walls but drift along the streets, giving anyone who walks through them a buzz and splattering them with paint.
The shaman who supports the magic of Nola, Doctor Professor, appears and tells Perry, Brendy and Peaches that some of the songs that keep their city alive have been stolen, and they must find them and get them back. Then Perry’s Grandfather, Daddy Deke, is stolen as well, and familiar landmarks begin to disappear. They will have help.
Casey Bridgewater lives in our New Orleans. He is a trans artist who hasn’t drawn for the years he has spent out of the city. Now he has returned and meets up with his cousin Jaylon who creates many of the tags seen around the district where he lives. Something strange is happening to the tags as they peel off the walls and start to float. Then an explosion at Jaylon’s studio initially makes Casey think his cousin is dead. As storm clouds gather, he is drawn into the hunt, not just for Jaylon but to save both cities from destruction.
Nola is a surreal place. It is sideways from reality, yet both cities depend on each other. The novel starts as a magical quest adventure for a trio of youngsters but gradually gets darker as some characters don’t want a positive outcome. Some songs, who are walking around as the persona depicted in their ballad, don’t want to be regathered. Towards the end, the action does become a little confusing, but, as a debut novel, this is a good showing.
It should be pointed out that most of the characters are black, and there may be some readers who will want to be offended on their behalf. Don’t be. The way they speak to and about each other is authentic and appropriate to the community they live in. Alex Jennings lives in New Orleans. He knows the community he is writing about. Another author might not get away with it. He does and has every right to, as above all, this is an enlightening book, and despite my reservations about the latter half, I’d recommend it. So enjoy a book whose characters live through these pages and are making their voices heard.