A Tale of Two Nolas: Alex Jennings’s The Ballad of Perilous Graves

Books Reviews Alex Jennings
A Tale of Two Nolas: Alex Jennings’s The Ballad of Perilous Graves

From the glorious cover and the hook in the back of book text, The Ballad of Perilous Graves gets off on the right foot: a failed magician, a New Orleans that runs on the magic of song, and a quest that requires facing off against the Haint of all Haints. Everything about this description is true—but like Nola herself, there are so many more secrets to uncover in Alex Jannings’s gorgeous new novel. You have to dance into the first pages and let the city carry you, even while she’s threatened by the Storm, the spirit of every hurricane that New Orleans has ever faced.

Perilous (Perry) Graves, the aforementioned failed magician, is actually hard to call a failure. He and his sister, Brendy, and their best friend, Peaches, are all children, but fate weighs heavily on their shoulders nonetheless. Peaches, who has super strength and who lives on her own in a supposedly haunted house on Perry’s street, gets irregular letters from her father, who vanished at sea but promised to return.

Each letter has a clue to where she’ll find the next one, and when a haint—the ghost of Koizumi Yakumo—steals her latest letter, Peaches is determined to face the spirit and get it back. But when things go wrong, separating Perry and Brendy from their friend, the siblings encounter Doctor Professor, a musician haint who confesses that the songs powering Nola have been set free from his piano. The children have to get them back.

Running parallel to this story, Casey Ravel, a former artist and grant writer, makes his own return to New Orleans. He’d left the city after Katrina, claiming that after the storm things just wouldn’t ever go back to normal. But when his cousin Jaylon tries to draw him back into the art scene, and reveals that—just like Casey’s—his graffiti art has magic, Casey has to admit that what he was fleeing from was the strangeness and power of what was happening to their art. When Jaylon’s workshop explodes, Casey doesn’t believe his cousin is dead, and he knows that he’ll do whatever it takes to find Jaylon and save him.

It takes a long time in the book to figure out how these two stories intersect, and why there’s such a strangeness in Perry’s Nola. There, the children interact with floating graffiti tags, P-bodies who seek highs from touching the graffiti, zombies, and giant nutria, semi-aquatic rodents that, in Nola, can speak. Casey’s city is also full of wonder and magic, but seems more familiar, closer to the city tourists might encounter. Each of the plot lines reveals a little bit about the other, just a single hint at a time, until they finally come together, fully intertwined, the fate of each depending on the other.

Jennings dips in and out of different points of view, giving us Perry’s thoughts (and a dark secret he’s never told anyone) to start, but moving into the perspectives of Brendy, Peaches, Casey, Perry and Brendy’s mother Yvette, as well as their grandfather Daddy Deke, haints, and songs. The story also flashes in and out of time in a way that demonstrates how the past is always present, and that what has gone on before still weaves its melodies through modern beats. The songs—both self-aware and performed—flicker at the edges of the pages, even when they’re not present in the center of the narrative, giving the sense that the whole world has a soundtrack (and that sometimes it clashes with itself). The richness of the narrative, and the way these harmonies play against each other—with the added color and texture of Casey’s own magical art—makes it hard to believe this is Jennings’s debut novel.

While there are a few moments that might be worth quibbles (the song “First Chief” references the real-world tune “Big Chief,” and while Jennings’s version is a vast improvement in sensitivity over the original, it will be interesting to see how Native American reviewers feel about its inclusion), the representation here feels true to the spirit of New Orleans. Casey, who is trans, is never only trans: he’s a brother, a cousin, an artist, a magician, and a comics reader.

In fact, references back to comics by both Casey and Perry are wonderful nods to fellow comics fans; Perry’s devotion to the novel The Phantom Tollbooth is also a fun inclusion for fellow lovers of that children’s book. That type of nod is present in the music as well; jazz fans will recognize “Stagger Lee,” “Mean Ole World,” “I Walk on Guilded Splinters,” and more. Even better, those who know them are likely to hum along, feeling the music in the pages. (For the uninitiated, Jennings has created a Spotify playlist to enhance the listening experience.)

The novel ends—but like life, it doesn’t. We leave the characters in a new and different place, but there are stories yet to tell, and fates yet to be resolved. The Storm will always return, after all, and it will be a true delight to revisit Nola if she comes back around again for an encore.

The Ballad of Perilous Graves is available now.

Alana Joli Abbott is a reviewer and game writer, whose multiple-choice novels, including Choice of the Pirate and Blackstone Academy for Magical Beginners, are published by Choice of Games. She is the author of three novels, several short stories and role-playing game supplements, and edits fantasy anthologies for Outland Entertainment, including APEX: World of Dinosaurs and Bridge to Elsewhere. You can find her online at VirgilandBeatrice.com.

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