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book cover for Orleans shows female character standing on top of a building looking at a city

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.

Like "Beasts of the Southern Wilds", Sherri L. Smith’s "Orleans" presents a dystopian SFF city that extends the real life natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina. In this novel, a series of increasingly violent storms batter New Orleans and leave behind a contagious Delta Fever. New Orleans is regretfully, officially abandoned by the US government. "Orleans" begins its story long after the people left behind have established a tenuous way of living in what they now call The Delta; surviving the blood fever by dividing people into tribes based on blood types.

"Orleans" shows how a city destroyed can be both horrifying and home. The novel emphasises that losing connection with the outside makes life extremely hard, but this loss of connection doesn’t destroy everyone in the Delta or prevent a society from developing. In the first few chapters, "Orleans" shows the close friendship between the book’s heroine Fen de la Guerre and Lydia, the leader of her tribe. This establishes that hope, friendship and resourcefulness can flourish, even though the Delta is a dangerous, violent environment:

My hut be right next to Lydia’s like it been at every camp since I joined her four years ago. Used to be we shared a Hogan. Well, Lydia got tired of me sleeping in the dirt outside her door and made me come inside.’

“Just in time to help me,” she say. “You always know when I need you.” Lydia rise up and smile all the more. She ain’t got but an inch or so on me height wise, but she clever with her braids, keep them on top of her head to make her taller. It work, too, with those high cheeks and slanted eyes, she be looking regal, like a real leader. Maybe one day I’ll tell Lydia our tribe too big to carry on like this and she make me a leader like her. We’ll have two tribes together, side by side and help each other like she always going on about…

Lydia and Fen are BFF’s who work together to keep their tribe alive. Fen is the serious, suspicious right hand woman to Lydia’s canny, more politic leader. There’s some serious d’aww in the first few chapters of this book and predictably, I began to wonder if this relationship might turn out to be romantic.

Of course, Lydia is pregnant and YA SFF swallows mothers whole so guess how long she lasts. Dreams dashed.

My favourite surviving aspect of this novel was easily Fen’s voice. I can’t speak to the accuracy of her Southern dialect, but her determined character, strong opinions and vibrant personality flew out of her first person narrative. It was her voice that pulled me all the way through this novel, and her sections that I found the most interesting. The chapters focused on Daniel, the boy from outside the Delta, just couldn’t compete.

And that’s why my biggest problem with "Orleans" is the ending. In the last two pages, Fen distracts guards so that Daniel can leave the Delta with Lydia’s baby. She dies as they escape. It’s the way Fen’s death is described that gets me:

‘For an instant, she looked at him. The moment hung in the air, Fen’s mouth curving into a smile, seeing Daniel and the baby almost there. Almost there. She turned away.

A shot rang out. The bundle fell from her arms.’

Her death is sudden and shocking, yet somehow empty of the significance I felt this moment deserved. The only other mention of her death is:

‘Daniel closed his eyes for a moment, blinking back hot tears, still seeing that last glimpse of Fen swirling through the water, spinning like the wheel that turns the word. He braced himself then ran for cover…’

It’s difficult to explain, to anyone who hasn’t read the novel, why this feels like a betrayal by the book; a failure to honour Fen’s last moments and some of the spirit of the novel. "Orleans" gives us swathes of Fen’s first person narrative. While Daniel features heavily in this novel and is given his own sections, they’re all written in the third person. So, Fen is the character the reader forms a close connection. The reader is inside her head, constantly hearing her voice, familiarly addressing them without the usual walls that she necessarily puts between herself and others. We get in deep with Fen and then that time is just over. The book ends and gives the reader no time to acclimatise to her death, or appreciate the significance of her death. Daniel’s grief is necessarily suppressed as he’s focused on escaping and unfortunately this leaves the ending of Orleans feeling uncaring about its heroine’s death.

Her death juxtaposed with Daniel’s escape also seem to undercut the novel’s message that there can be life and hope inside the Delta. Where is the personification of that possibility at the end of the novel? The Delta's potential seems to die with Fen which feels like a terrible waste after so many pages of promise.

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The Book Smugglers
Dear Author

Date: 2014-05-01 01:38 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Reading the summary of this book made me want to gather all the "Nope nope nope" gifs I have ever seen on the internet, and put them all in the comments section. Nothing terrible happened to me during the hurricane, but I remain completely unable to consume media in which New Orleans is under water. Or anything with floods really. I always end up feeling sick and anxious. But it's too bad the ending didn't live up to the rest of the book. :(


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