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WesternSFA


Belle Chasse
Sentinels of New Orleans #5
by Suzanne Johnson
Tor, $31.99, 336pp
Published: November 2016

I've enjoyed the 'Sentinels of New Orleans' series by Suzanne Johnson, even as it's clearly evolved from book to book, and I'm particularly happy to have now read it in order; my first experience with it was 'Pirate's Alley', which is the fourth in the series and the predecessor to this one.

If 'Royal Street' was a beginning and 'River Road' was, well, more beginning, 'Elysian Fields' marked the point at which this series felt like a series. While a few characters have been present throughout and the underpinning story began in book one, this still feels more like a third chapter than a fifth. Things got serious on a grand scale in 'Elysian Fields', they escalated in 'Pirate's Alley' and they continue to escalate here. This may be highlighted best by the fact that the time that unfolds between the first page and the last seems to keep decreasing with each book. What happens here doesn't take place in a single afternoon but, oh boy, sometimes it feels like it! There's never a dull moment for DJ Jaco and her ragtag band of collaborators.

While everything in 'Belle Chasse' is a continuation and reading the first four books is highly recommended, it must be said that Johnson is particularly talented at capable recaps. I honestly can't think of another writer who can weave a brief synopsis of everything that's happened thus far into the early pages of a new book in a series without it feeling awkward and in the way. I'd have to go back to the pulp era to find similar skill, when writers knocked out another novel in their series every single month and had to assume that it would reach new readers yet again who needed to know at least a little background to get them going.

What's new here is war. The spark for all this action began right before the first book, when Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans and tore down not only half the city but also the curtain between our world and the Beyond, the home of both preternatural creatures, or pretes, and our own historical remembered folk so famous that death can't keep them from us. With them starting to cross over to our New Orleans, along with vampires, elves, fairies and a bestiary of wilder species, from nymphs to weregators, the first four books unfolded against the diplomatic efforts by the wizards who used to patrol that border to create an Interspecies Council to govern such traffic. Maybe we felt that it would work for a couple of books but, by 'Elysian Fields', we'd surely given up on the concept as untenable and it's here that the characters follow suit and prepare for the worst.

Oddly, the shift from diplomacy to imminent war actually quietens things down a little as the various species batten down their hatches. Intrigue is the name of the game for a while and a number of the key players are past masters. I'm never going to be a fan of Quince Randolph, however hard Johnson fights to keep him from being too much of an ass—every time he goes a little too far, she reels him back in with another positive attribute—but that's much of the point. He's the definition of an unwelcome guest but he has his uses and he plays a very good long game. Jean Lafitte, the privateer, has had centuries of practice at that too, and he continues to grow with each book. There are points where I'm starting to wonder if this is really his series and DJ is just the pivot around which everything revolves.

The cast of characters continues to grow. It was acutely surprising, having started with book four, to go back to a sparse book one with a minimal cast. It's increased ever since and, while Johnson doesn't appear to be reticent to kill off characters, she's hardly a George R. R. Martin. War may be the point where we lose a whole bunch of the folk we've come to know and hate. Or maybe those we've come to know and love; tragedy is always a great way to drive a series forward, after all.

This time out, the fairies come to the fore and they're as far from the gentle souls of traditional fantasy as can be comfortably imagined. In fact, Faery is already at war, with two princes battling it out for the throne, Christof is a fantastic wildcard who is only stable when compared with his mad brother, Florian. The former is the Faery Prince of Winter, while the latter, almost inevitably, is the Faery Prince of Summer, and that means that the weather is a weapon as much as anything else. While we were introduced to this pair in the last book, we visit Faery for the first time in this one and it's a suitably wild place, with buildings that move, a veritable ice palace and Mick the bartending bear, the leader of the Hybrids, a concept I'm sure we'll be encountering again soon.

The most unexpected new arrival is Audrey, DJ's cousin, five years younger and a failed wizard, unable to pass the licensing exam. Given the circumstances under which we ended book four, DJ's connection to the wizards is very much being reevaluated. While she's often had her disagreements with them, she's always identified as one of them and that's starting to change. The list of wizards that she likes, trusts and respects is becoming a Venn diagram with some of them moving from one circle to another as new information comes to light. It was a fantastic idea to shake that all up by adding Audrey as a new complicating factor and I applaud her inclusion.

While there's a great deal to like here, especially for fans of the series, it's the first book thus far that I've found doubts about. The majority of it is strong, in the vein of 'Pirate's Alley', but there are a few points that I found a little disappointing. There's a rescue scene late in the book that really underwhelmed me, for instance, not only in the details of how it's staged but in its emotional impact, which ought to have been truly powerful but really wasn't. For such a carefully plotted novel, it felt like a half-crafted afterthought to get us to what goes down at the very end of the book, which is at least highly appropriate and something for which I've been waiting for a long time.

I'll end by saying that I didn't get hold of this novel until very recently, so it felt like a long gap between books, but 'Belle Chasse' was published in November 2016, only a year and a half after 'Pirate's Alley', so that gap is at my end not Johnson's. Next up for her and this series is 'Frenchmen Street', the sixth book in the series, which is due next month. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles in the Sentinels of New Orleans series click here

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