The Ballad of Perilous Graves, Alex Jennings (Redhook 978-0-7595-5719-2, $28.00, hc, 480pp) June 2022. Cover by Lisa Marie Pompilio.
In a letter to readers of his debut novel, The Ballad of Perilous Graves, author Alex Jennings notes that the book was prompted by a discussion back in 2009 about children returning to New Orleans without their parents in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failure. Their struggles made him think of the classic children’s book character Pippi Longstocking and how she would fare in the city. A few years later, and we have his novel with Peaches, Perry, and Brendy running about a magic-infused version of Nola, dodging Haints, graffiti-addicted “P-bodies,” and large talking nutrias who show up in the oddest of places. Peaches is a modern Pippi, down to having a horse who lives with her in a rundown mansion, inexplicable physical strength, and endless tales of her long-absent globe-trotting sea captain father. But Perry and Brendy are far more complex than Astrid Lindgren’s Tommy and Annika ever were, and the stakes for these children are monumentally higher than Pippi ever faced. A storm is coming for Nola – a storm of evil that spawned every hurricane that has ever hit the city – and it won’t be satisfied until everyone, living and dead, is gone. It’s starting with Nola’s music but soon no one is safe, and the children are charged with, literally, saving their entire world.
So, yeah, it’s Pippi but a LOT more serious, a lot more exciting, and tremendously more creative. This novel is a literary and music-filled adventure that throws historical quips and asides into the text for everything from jazz to children’s literature. (Perry is mildly obsessed with Milo from The Phantom Tollbooth.) Don’t even get me started with Lafcadio Hearn showing up in a book-filled office spouting tales of the city’s past. LAFCADIO HEARN! (There are many things I want to write about Hearn’s involvement in the plot but cannot because spoilers, but man – awesome!)
For much of the narrative, Jennings takes readers along as Perry, Peaches, and Brendy engage in increasingly more intense encounters with family, friends, the dead, the varied denizens of Nola, and some family ancestors. While all that is a grand ride through an imagined New Orleans, the author throws a few curveballs with a second storyline involving school fundraiser Casey, who is nursing a broken heart and has recently returned to the city, and his much beloved cousin Jaylon. Casey and Jaylon are both talented graffiti artists, but Casey stepped away from the art after his creations became too real. Jaylon has continued on, however, and a recent breakthrough has convinced him that the two cousins have serious magic potential. Going back and forth between the three kids who are knee deep in magic and the two adults who are unsure it is real can be a bit disconcerting at first. But then readers will realize that one group lives in Nola and other is in New Orleans and, well, we’ve got two cities happening and Jennings is crafting a narrative path to both explain their divergence and bring them together. Does it work? Oh, hell yeah, it works! Everything works so well in this novel that you will not want to let it go and in the end you will be begging – begging – for another visit!
Things I loved about The Ballad of Perilous Graves: the stolen songs which are alive and embody their lyrics (music lovers will enjoy this a lot); Perry’s entire family, especially his grandfather; the name-dropping from New Orleans history; the graffiti; even the scary graffiti; Casey and Jaylon’s mad sibling-esque affection for each other; Peaches as a brand-new Pippi Longstocking who is just so much better than the original!; comic book trivia; all of Perry’s book love; the second Casey; the Dead Side of Town; zombies; and sentences like this one that just drop down out of nowhere: “So, pancakes, bacon, Golden Girls marathon. Come and get it.”
I could go on and on about what Alex Jennings has created with this book but suffice to say, The Ballad of Perilous Graves is a must read. It does not shy away from the fact that the world, whichever one you inhabit, can be a scary and unpredictable place. But Jennings gives us so much hope, so much joy, and so many smart and dedicated characters, that you will believe you too can leap tall buildings, smash the bad guys, and win. You will believe that music can be the stuff of powerful magic, you will wonder about Buddy Bolden’s horn, and you will love a Black girl in Nola named Peaches. Well done, Mr. Jennings; you have created a masterpiece.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the October 2022 issue of Locus.
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