Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Diverse Reads: Orleans by Sherri L. Smith

Orleans has been on my radar since before it was published, right after I read and loved Sherri L. Smith's novel Flygirl. But I didn't exactly rush out and buy Orleans. As popular as the genre is, dystopian titles have never gotten me overly excited. They seem all doom and gloom, angst against a repressive government that's more of a strawman than a legitimate, believable threat.

In an absolutely chilling opening, Orleans turns all of that on its head.

It begins in 2004, with a lone trumpet player standing on top of the levee, watching a coming storm, daring it to do its worst. He won't leave New Orleans.

On the following page is a list, beginning with:

"August 29, 2005
Hurricane Katrina
Saffir-Simpson Category 3 at landfall
Casualties: 971; Survivors: 30,000"

 Then there's Hurricane Isaiah in 2014, followed by Lorenzo, Olga, Laura, and Paloma, each becoming worse and worse. The list ends with Hurricane Jesus in 2019:

"Category 6 at landfall,
based on new Saffir-Simpson Scale
Casualties: estimated 8,000;
Survivors: estimated below 10,000"

Next are government documents, describing the quarantine of the Gulf Coast as Delta Fever breaks out, then the "Declaration of Separation" as the United States becomes the Outer States.

Do I believe this is exactly what will happen to New Orleans? No. But having lived through those terrible days following Katrina, I can certainly imagine all sorts of grim possibilities. At this point, I was totally on board with Smith, whatever followed.

The next section of the novel (titled "After") begins with Fen, a teenage African American girl, part of a tribe of O Positives (or OPs). This is where the book slows down a bit, as Smith tries to catch her readers up on a society where due to Delta Fever, everything is based on blood, not race. I have to say, I read several paragraphs over again, trying to understand exactly what it meant to be an AB as opposed to an O-Neg. Thankfully, soon the story was careening through the Delta again, and in context everything started to make sense.

And what a crazy, fascinating world Smith has created, unlike anything I've read before. There's one computer in the whole city, working via foot pedal in the library, there's a church in an abandoned Super Saver, but most of the churches are places of sanctuary, hidden in treetops. There's thick jungles, swamps, tribes of Blood Hunters, The Rooftops, which is a grassy plain growing over city homes. Be light on your toes, though, because the ground isn't so stable, and underneath lurks deserted bedrooms and living rooms filled with mold and giant alligators.

And did I mention the non-stop action, and break-neck pace at which the story flies through these locations? Orleans received starred-reviews when it first came out, and I know The Booksmugglers reviewed it (Verdict: "Damn Near Perfection!") but otherwise I've heard so little about it. Why isn't everyone and their mother reading this book?!

I also loved Fen, who soon into the story has a newborn thrust upon her, when she's really not the mothering type. For the first several scrapes, Fen fantasizes about depositing the nuisance baby somewhere, either in relative safely, or in hopes of an easy death. But ultimately, she becomes desperate to get the child to the world outside Orleans, where the child can grow up safe from everything Fen knows and fears.

On the surface, race has nothing to do with this story. Race is dead, the scientists believe, because now everything depends on your tribe, which is determined by your blood type. But in order for her baby to have a chance, and maybe even the city as a whole, Fen bands together with a bumbling, white tourist / scientist from the Outer States. Ultimately, they'll be forced to trust each other with their lives.

I tried explaining this book (okay, gushing about this book) to a group of people, and found them looking at me like I was the most grim person on Earth. But it's that message of trusting in others different from ourselves, and a desperate hope that things can change (plus, of course, the crazy, fascinating world Smith has created) that meant I couldn't stop reading Orleans.

Now I'm out to snatch up every Smith title I can put my hands on...

How about you? Read anything amazing lately?


  1. A very strong review, Anne. Lovers of dystopian novels will be reading this one.

    1. Thanks, Mirka! I hope even more non-dystopian lovers (like me!) will give it a chance. It really deserves its time in the sun!

  2. This is my next book. Like you I was confused in the beginning so I put it aside. But now I'll try it again. Recently been reading Margaret Atwood's MADDADDAM trilogy but that is dystopian. Ha. But a disturbing masterpiece.

    1. I haven't read any Atwood in ages... tempting to read some of her more recent stuff. I have no doubt that it's a masterpiece!

      Oh, I really hope you can get into Orleans this time around. The book proper begins with a tribal get-together. Then, just a few chapters in, they're interrupted. If you can just make it that far, that's where things really take off.

      All you really need to know (and I'm sure you'll figure it out) is that Delta Fever is much worse for A/B blood types, and they need constant blood transfusions to stay alive. O-Positives and O-Negs are safer from the Fever, but anyone can take O-Neg blood (they're the "universal donor"), so they're frequently targeted and kidnapped for their blood. Fen is an OP, so her life is a bit more stable, but blood hunters will use anyone they can get their hands on.


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