THE BALLAD OF PERILOUS GRAVES by Alex Jennings

THE BALLAD OF PERILOUS GRAVES

Alex Jennings (alexjennings.net)

Orbit (orbit-books.co.uk)

£8.99

Buy a copy from your favourite independent bookshop

Perilous “Perry” Graves is a ten-year-old boy who lives off Jackson Avenue in the west of Nola with his extended family. School is out for summer and Perry wants nothing more than to spend it adventuring with his younger sister, Brendy, and Peaches, the little girl with superhuman abilities who lives down the street and who, if only he could admit it to himself, he loves more than anything in the world. Casey Ravel is a transgender school administrator who lives in New Orleans. Casey fled the city in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina rather than facing the city left behind in the aftermath, but now he’s back. Nine songs have escaped from the Mess Around, Doctor Professor’s magical piano that maintains the city’s beat, and he tasks Perry to retrieve them. But he doesn’t tell the boy everything, and soon Perry discovers that his small band are up against one of the most dangerous haints ever to call the city home. Their investigation sets his world and that of Casey Ravel on a collision course that will change everything.

From the opening lines of Alex Jennings’ debut, The Ballad of Perilous Graves, you know you’ve happened upon something really special. It will be classed as “urban fantasy” no doubt, but this book fulfills a much more important – possibly sacred – role: it’s a love letter to the city of New Orleans, to the people who inhabit it and to the music and culture that makes it like no other city on the planet. It’s a testament to the strength of character of its inhabitants that sees them pick themselves up, brush themselves off and rebuild time and time again, as hurricane after hurricane – which all become one, all-threathening Storm within the story – ravages their home and tries to wipe them off the map. It’s also rollicking good fun, evoking this unique place, its people and its culture beautifully, while also giving us the excitement and intrigue that leaves us, by the end, wishing for more.

For the most part, Jennings alternates between the two main characters – Perry and Casey. The first mystery, which we will solve gradually as the story progresses, is how these two narratives are linked. Casey’s is easy, his timeline set in stone with the addition of concrete dates. This is the real New Orleans in late 2018, a city that is still – thirteen years (in Casey’s timeline) after the event – recovering from the devastation caused when the levees broke, unable to cope with the volumes of water dumped by Katrina at the end of August 2005. Perry’s timeline – not to mention location – is harder to pin down: the people here only ever refer to the city as Nola; ghosts and graffiti roam the streets; and the city’s famous trolleys fly. Here magic is very much alive and kicking and there is no magic more powerful than music, the life-blood of the city. The songs that have escaped roam the city in human form and none is more dangerous than Stagger Lee, who is chasing the other escaped songs, but with no intention of returning them to their rightful place.

The Ballad of Perilous Graves is peopled by a colourful cast of characters, each one memorable in his or her own right. We find ourselves firmly in the corner of Perry and his small band, perhaps because the parental instinct kicks in as soon as we meet them. They, like the people who surround them are so vividly realised that they POP off the page. We can hear the accent and picture each person, or ghost, or anthropomorphic animal as we meet them. We understand the concept of the p-bodies without ever having encountered them before. Doctor Professor, a sort of guardian of both cities, is presented as a cross between musicians Doctor John and Professor Longhair (one character even goes so far as to call him Henry Byrd) while Stagger Lee is described as:

He was dressed to the nines in a blue-and-white striped suit with what looked like a ruffled white silk scarf at the neck instead of a tie. He looked like a time-travelling pimp. He wore an old-timey purple hat – sort of like the ones Dr. Watson wore in the old Sherlock Holmes pictures.

More so than the characters, Jennings infuses the story with an incredible sense of place. We feel like we are in New Orleans as we’re reading, feeling the often oppressive heat, smelling the aromas, tasting the food and hearing everything around us. To top it all off, Jennings also leaves us with an inexplicable desire to hear the music for which the city is famous (the proof copy that I received, with thanks to the publisher, comes with a Spotify playlist; I hope it’s included with the finished copy, too). For this reader, who spent a week in New Orleans (or is it N’Awlins?) shortly after Katrina’s brief visit, Jennings’ book has left me with nothing less than a burning desire to revisit. But The Ballad of Perilous Graves is much more than a travelogue in disguise: it’s a dark and menacing story made all the more intense by the fact that its protagonists haven’t yet reached their teens. It grips from the first page and has it all: mystery, horror, music, love.

An accomplished and beautifully-constructed debut, The Ballad of Perilous Graves is sure to put Alex Jennings on the map. One of the most original pieces of fiction I’ve read in some time, the book will trample all over your expectations and leave you with the sense that we’re in the hands of nothing less than genius. I can’t over-emphasize how everyone should read The Ballad of Perilous Graves immediately. There’s nothing quite like it, and it heralds the arrival of an exciting new voice in speculative fiction.

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