{book} a not-so-new orleans

orleans coverOrleans by Sherri L. Smith

G.P. Putnam’s Sons (Penguin), 2013

Hardcover, 324 pages.

After a string of devastating hurricanes and a severe outbreak of Delta Fever, the Gulf Coast has been quarantined. Years later, residents of the Outer States are under the assumption that life in the Delta is all but extinct… but in reality, a new primitive society has been born.
Fen de la Guerre is living with the O-Positive blood tribe in the Delta when they are ambushed. Left with her tribe leader’s newborn, Fen is determined to get the baby to a better life over the wall before her blood becomes tainted. Fen meets Daniel, a scientist from the Outer States who has snuck into the Delta illegally. Brought together by chance, kept together by danger, Fen and Daniel navigate the wasteland of Orleans. In the end, they are each other’s last hope for survival.–Publisher’s copy.

A new category was needed for Hurricane Jesus in 2019, a declaration of quarantine for the Gulf Coast region issued in 2020, and by 2025 a declaration of separation was signed withdrawing the United States from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Not the sort of secessionist argument Texas thinks about I’m sure. But we are only offered the point of view of a young woman raised in the aftermath of devastating hurricanes, Delta Fever, and quarantine from the Outer States of America in Orleans.

We are introduced to 16 year old Fen as she negotiates what has been her normal the past few years—seeing to her tribe’s chieftain. The opening’s day anticipates some big changes on the horizon. The novel continues in this vein, the glimpses of how everyday life works in the Delta while keeping the reader in that perpetual state of an unknown outcome to a life in constant threat of violence. Immersing the reader into Fen’s world—an indelicate Fen’s world—is a way in which the author achieves this tension. The novel moves between Fen’s and Daniel’s first person narrating (once he arrives), but hers is in “tribe.” She has a very strong voice and none of her observations come out of nowhere—like his sometimes does. Of course, Daniel’s scattering is unavoidable, nothing is as he expected.

Daniel was a bit of a problem for me; that bit being his age: 24; more than even those thoughts that “he really is just a device, isn’t he?” As the novel went on, I felt like his age was originally older in earlier drafts and someone thought anything greater was too old to be hanging around a 16 year old girl. Even if he were a genius, I still had a problem with his resume. Maybe this is why no one over 30 should read YA? If Daniel were to play roles in romantic/sexual tension—I’m still not sure—but nevertheless, he doesn’t. There is zero romance in this novel!! hurray!! Well, and maybe, too bad, because we do learn why Fen is not a starry-eyed teenage girl or sexually-liberated young woman. In the market place, teenage boys are boys and we think little at first as to why there might be a reason for Fen’s disinterest. She just seems to be a focused young woman.

I kept picturing Fen as a young Zoe (Gina Torres) of Joss Whedon’s Firefly series and Serenity, so strong was her resemblance: intelligent, resourceful, powerful, tough yet capable of vulnerability and loyal. {She is Orleans} Her loyalty to Lydia, her chieftain, is one rooted in love. She makes a promise and sticks to it, even when it isn’t just inconvenient, but life-threatening. Smith minds the reality of a baby, and she works hard to make the premise of the story convincing. How is it Orleans persists physically. What is this Delta Fever and what are its physical and social consequences. The science of it shapes the social landscape. The different groups (institutions) Smith imagines is fascinating. I was especially taken with the lack of an apparent overarching government (considering the population) and how any unspoken agreements seem to be upheld—not that all of them were… That Smith wrote and kept to such an intimate portrait was the most appealing. Her Fen was able to believably cross a variety of people and circumstances so as to show us how Orlean’s situation worked. The use of flashbacks helped and were nicely done.

The consistent characterization of both the human and the landscape really sets the tone and gives the plot structure. For there to be such an underlying menace riding this ticking-clock action-adventure story, you had to have some very chilling figures. The very capable heroine has to have some vulnerability without questioning that core competence to see the baby, Daniel, and the Reader through. Daniel has to be properly suited to show us the Outer States and the external threat they’ve been to Orleans. Smith manages it all beautifully, by the way—although I’m not sure this would read “character driven plot” the way many anticipate; which is the added bonus.

In a lot of ways, the people of [New] Orleans are almost mythic in their ability to survive, the Delta (nature) most certainly is portrayed as nearly-miraculous resilience. As Daniel provides us in his ever present surprise that the city is not dead, but alive, organized, and dare we believe thriving?—we see where the “almost” and “near” come from. I mentioned earlier that Fen was Orleans—she not only characterizes her city and people in the present, but she, in a way, tells their story in her life, past into future—which makes that ending of particular interest. What of that ending other than sudden and unexpected—I was very much impressed. And by unexpected, I do not mean that it does not make sense in the keeping of the novel. But what to do with that ending if Fen is Orleans…

The novel favored Fen’s pragmatism over any sense of optimism. Any optimism present is shown to be snatched away, “The City takes… What does it give?” Neither is it pessimistic. You find beauty where you will, sneaking up on you or waiting in the compassion of others.

I feel awkward saying that Orleans is a really entertaining read, like the way I say Children of Men (2006) is entertaining. It is in that heart-pounding spinning of events and the ever present dread that goal of the novel may not be reached. But humans do not come off as lovely creatures and the violence is not just present but bleeding all over you. The end of the above “Publisher’s copy” reads: Sherri L. Smith delivers an expertly crafted story about a fierce heroine whose powerful voice and firm determination will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page.” Fen is the investment you make in the book; the baby while I’m sure has some implications to thematic study, works like the Alfred Hitchcock’s “McGuffin”—it motivates Fen, but it is Fen that the story is really interested in. And this is by no means a complaint. Orleans is an exhilarating read, and Fen should be unforgettable.


recommendations: Teen, though Smith is as delicate as possible w/ the violence; she employs some poetics in her handling of a rape scene of a child, but the image she draws from is a rape in its own significance (of a child) so… Smith is stunning with her use of language and metaphor; really good writing. Orleans would be good friends with Shipbreaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, and play nice with most other post-apocalyptic and dystopian young-adult fictions. for those who love and/or are familiar with the city of New Orleans.

of note: I saw an article referencing the status of the film adaptation of Veronica Roth’s Divergent, which didn’t read it because I didn’t care for the novel, but I did care that Orleans would be the better story. It is much closer in caliber to The Hunger Games than Roth’s. Bonus that cinema would have to employ brown-skinned actors as the primary cast. What kind of sales do we need to see for Orleans to make this a possibility?

Published by L

I read, and I write. and until recently, I sold books.

3 thoughts on “{book} a not-so-new orleans

  1. Sounds really intriguing. I love the idea of a character who reminds you of a young Zoe – yay! 🙂

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