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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Victoria Reviews: Orleans by Sherri L. Smith

Have you ever wondered what would happen if New Orleans were hit by a whirlwind of devastating hurricanes, leaving the city completely destroyed only to have a deadly, incurable disease spread its way through the delta? 

Me either.  At least not until I read Sherri L. Smith’s novel, Orleans.

Smith's novel is a fascinating dystopian tale of a future where the wreckage of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are ravaged by a deadly disease called the Delta Fever. The story takes place in the year 2056, years after New Orleans was destroyed by a barrage of category 4 and 5 hurricanes. The last and most dangerous hurricane to strike was Hurricane Jesus, and the storm was so fierce that it actually exceeded the 1-5 hurricane categories and was labeled category 6. After the storms die down and the coast starts to rebuild, the devastating Delta Fever sweeps its way across the coast. The United States builds a wall to separate the diseased area and leaves the sick inhabitants to their fate.

Meanwhile, those left behind split into tribes based on blood type to survive. The novel focuses on the story of fifteen-year-old Fen, a girl living with a tribe of O-Positives who are less affected by the disease than many others. Their tribe is attacked one night, and Fen is left alone with the care of her tribe leader's newborn baby. Since the Fever will take seven days to get into a healthy baby's system, Fen decides to try to get the baby over the wall and to a better life. Along the way, she meets Daniel, a scientist from over the wall who has entered the Gulf in an attempt to find a cure for the Delta Fever. The two form an unlikely alliance as they help each other out and try to survive life in the harsh New Orleans wilderness.

This was a fascinating story. I've read my share of dystopian novels, but I think this is the first with a degenerate society with little order or authority. The story is told in two separate ways: some of it is from Fen's first person point of view, and other bits are from Daniel's third person limited point of view. At first, it was difficult to read Fen's voice, as it is written in her particular dialect (she "talks tribe" as she says). After the first few chapters, however, the flow of the language felt much more natural. Some might not be able to get past that, but I was, and the story was worth the effort.

Having lived my whole life in Louisiana and visited New Orleans on numerous occasions, reading this book was very exciting and rather strange at the same time.  Though the New Orleans Smith writes is nearly unrecognizable, there are several well-known landmarks we see throughout the novel.  It’s rather unsettling to read what became of the ruins of familiar and sometimes famous New Orleans landmarks like the Super Dome, the French Quarter, and other places that I have actually visited in real life.  It’s not often that I read a novel with a setting I’ve actually visited, much less when that setting is completely destroyed and reworked.  It offers a really interesting look at an alternate New Orleans and what could happen after one too many hurricanes.

Smith handles both suspense and action very well.  Fen and Daniel have to be constantly vigilant against attackers because the Gulf Coast has become such a dangerous place.  It’s almost ironic how dangerous Orleans is in the story when you juxtapose it with how dangerous the city is considered today.  Smith helps the reader feel the fear and adrenaline from constantly having to watch your back.  There’s a constant feeling that anything can happen at any time.  It’s animalistic, even.

The characters are nicely portrayed.  Fen’s personality comes across strongly right from the beginning.  She’s one who has had to take care of herself for a long time, and it’s obvious.  You feel like you really know her well by the end.  Daniel doesn’t come across as strongly as Fen, but he’s not meant to.  He’s the one the reader should be better able to identify with since he’s from the outside.  He hasn’t spent his whole life fighting against the New Orleans wilderness, and neither have we.  We’re experiencing it all for the first time along with him with Fen as our guide.

Overall, it’s an excellent book that those who enjoy action, adventure, and a character-driven story should really enjoy.  Especially if you’ve ever been to New Orleans.

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