Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Orleans, by Sherri L. Smith

Taking a break from Cybils nominees today: I was browsing in the library and I happened to see this cover and I had to bring this book home. And wow. This is quite the book.

Orleans came out a couple of years ago, and I'm surprised it didn't get more notice, either in the blogosphere or on the awards circuit. This is a significant book. It's also not a very typical YA novel; in particular it's not a typical YA dystopian, and that's part of why I loved it (and maybe why some readers were left a little stranded by it).

The cover is perfect. I can't stop looking at it, it's so beautiful. Plus, it perfectly represents the vivid, gorgeous, fascinating, terrifying—and terrifyingly plausible—world Smith has created. Orleans is what New Orleans becomes after multiple hurricanes have devastated it, after a terrible plague sweeps through it and after the rest of the States wall it off to prevent the plague from spreading. Those who didn't die of Delta Fever band together in tribes based on blood type as a way to prevent the worst effects of the disease. Cut off from the rest of the world except for whatever smugglers can bring in, a strange, dangerous society evolves.

I can't say enough about the world-building in Orleans. Unlike almost all YA dystopias, this one has an entirely believable premise—the only thing that seemed a little contrived was the fever affecting different blood-types differently, and I don't know enough biochemistry to know how plausible that is. And, given the premise, this is how people would actually behave. I love that there are selfish, manipulative evil people making the most of the lawlessness and chaos, but there are also good people trying to take care of others, and there are regular folk just trying to survive. There's an economy that works; there's no central authority, but there are rules everyone obeys because it's to everyone's benefit to obey them.

Orleans reminded me of Olivia Butler's Parable of the Sower with its incisively accurate portrayal of humanity reacting to crisis. Both at the societal level and the individual, I was completely convinced by Smith's version of post-apocalyptic New Orleans.

And the environment: decaying, toxic, flooded, lush with swampy jungle. Never mind my description, just gaze at that cover and know that the narrative draws you right into that world.

But, however immersive the setting, if I don't like the protagonist I won't be able to read the book. I loved Fen de la Guerre. Fierce, intelligent, loyal, pragmatic, deeply scarred—physically and emotionally—by terrible things that have happened to her, she pursues her goal come hell or high water (quite literally) using whatever means she must. And her goal? I have not seen this yet in YA sci fi: she has to smuggle a newborn baby (not her own) across the wall to safety before the baby gets infected with the fever. Utterly compelling.

Fen's voice . . . let me give you a sample:
The second rule of escape: Assess your assets.
I got two legs and two arms that work, so that be something. They took the chains off when they threw us in here. I got a half-empty bottle of baby formula. I got a shirt tied into a sling, and a baby. I got some hay, and that about it. Not a lot to go on. 
Then a cough come from the other side of the room and I remember I got one other thing. I got the leper. 
The rhythm of the dialect worked for me; I could hear Fen in my head and it brought her to life. It's also another example of Smith's detailed realism, because there are actually several dialects and languages in the book, and Fen speaks more than one, depending on the circumstances.

I could go on and on about this book, but I'll finish by telling you two things that this YA dystopian does not have:
1. a teenager with special powers who saves the world
2. romance
So you've been warned! Unless you think those are two essential elements, you need to go find this book. It's that good.


  1. I've never heard of this book either but I gotta admit, that cover does look really intriguing. I also find that thing about different blood types unique and interesting as well.

  2. Comparing any writing to Octavia Butler is high praise indeed. I will have to check this out. Thanks for the review.

  3. I've heard about this book in lots of places, and it does sound awfully good. But I just have a strict policy about not reading books where terrible things happen to New Orleans. I cannot take it. My lovely city, my lovely state. It's too easy for me to imagine. :(

    1. Yeah, I can see how you might be a little sensitive about it!