Gather the Fortunes, Bryan Camp (John Joseph Adams/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 978-1-328-87671-3, $24.00, 384pp. hc) May 2019.
Last year, I reviewed Bryan Camp’s first novel (and the first of his Crescent City novels), The City of Lost Fortunes. Even though I found that novel flawed, I still looked forward to the next one in the series. Camp had invented an interesting alternate New Orleans, and his idea of the pantheon was compellingly loose and wild, with room for every god from every global religious tradition imaginable. Well, I have good news: his second novel, Gather the Fortunes, is even better, and you don’t have to have read his first to enjoy this one.
Renaissance Raines narrates this novel, and she’s terrific company: hip, thoughtful, funny, good-hearted, and confused enough about her origins and destiny that her journey remains compelling across the book’s significant length. Renai is a psychopomp, a messenger of Death who helps transition souls to the other side after their lives have ended. The latest soul she’s meant to collect, Ramses St. Cyr, has missed his appointment, an aberration Renai is not sure how to correct. The missing soul is the main quest item in the novel, but in the meantime, all kinds of other stuff happens. It’s the Hallows (the days surrounding Halloween), which means the behavior of spirits and gods is a little chaotic; Renai’s constant companion, Sal, is nowhere to be found; a trickster god offers Renai a deal she knows is a trap, and she has no choice but to take it. Plus, the Voice and the Magician of New Orleans both seek her out for mysterious reasons, and she can’t stop spying on her living family. Will Renai ever be whole?
Gather the Fortunes has more than a few tricks up its sleeve. It essentially reboots itself around page 150, a deft move that redeems its necessarily lifeless early pages (pun intended). Renai, who is black, embeds her narration with racial awareness, a seamless bit of character development that warrants a huge hat-tip in the direction of its white male author. One character’s nefarious motivations are slightly telegraphed, but her full significance is well hidden. The answer to the puzzle of what happened to Ramses St. Cyr remains baffling right up until it’s answered. Though the prose is a little excessive (location descriptions in particular took up unnecessary room), it’s much finer than in Camp’s first book. One of Renai’s instincts is termed “a contract scrimshawed onto her bones,” and she describes returning from the world of the dead to the world of the living in several senses: “the baking cake scent of lit candles… the bluster of traffic… the plaintive croon of a brass instrument.” Camp is also capable of excellent curse-word idiom: “fuck-knuckle,” “got-damn,” “shit-breathed.” He can pitch language at registers high, low, and medium, as the novel demands.
More impressively, Gather the Fortunes has real thematic consequence. Wholeness, or making something complete out of broken fragments, is a major throughline, one that has special resonance for the city of New Orleans. Renai has not patched her life together particularly well in the years since her death, and reminders of Katrina are still around, even if they’re no longer everywhere. Two sides of a single coin are always present, in all of Renai’s struggles: “How could she stomach the anger she felt for the injustices of the world when she knew it was full of broken, frightened people? How could she love the world she lived in when it filled her with so much hate?” Sometimes this thematic consequence turns preachy – a chaos goddess gives a mouthpiece speech at the novel’s climax – but mostly, it demonstrates Camp’s effort and imagination, his skill as an author at assembling a novel that is both fun and deep, and all of a piece.
Did I mention the fun? I should have. Camp’s supporting characters pipe up with their pop obsessions (Hamilton, Futurama) to bring the fantasy world into delightful alignment with the real world. The novel functions almost as a series of set pieces, rather than a flowing narrative, but that’s a good quality. It makes the book a series of dazzling adventures, with Renai’s strong arc connecting them all. Gather the Fortunes finds the balance between engaging fiction and thematic gravity, taking time for all the middle places, too.
Katharine Coldiron is the author of Ceremonials (Kernpunkt Press), an SPD fiction bestseller. Her work as a book critic has appeared in The Washington Post, The Believer, The Guardian, and many other places. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com.
This review and more like it in the May 2019 issue of Locus.
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