author: Sherri L. Smith
date: Putnam Juvenile; March, 2013
Reviewed by Craig Laurance Gidney
In 2056, New Orleans is unrecognizable. A series of storms has basically destroyed the Gulf Coast region. The final one named Hurricane Jesus, was a Category Six. A new, highly contagious virus that attacks the blood developed in the region. In 2025, the United States builds a wall around the Gulf Coast to contain the spread of the disease. While the rest of the U.S.—now called the Outer States—struggles to get back on its feet, those left behind the Wall develop a tribal society divided by blood types. Those with O-positive or O-negative blood are hunted by others, since their blood is the least susceptible to the fever. Blood farms and smugglers exist in this city, which has been overtaken by nature and is flooded.
Fen de la Guerre has grown up in this world, where she must be fierce and resourceful if she is to survive. She is the second-in-command of her O-positive tribe when it is attacked. The leader of her tribe gives birth to a daughter in the midst of the attack and dies, but not before charging Fen with the task of delivering her infant to someplace over the Wall, away from the violence and illness.
Simultaneously, scientist Daniel is seeking a way into Orleans to test out a potential cure for Delta Fever. He carries with him vials full of a substance that could be an antidote, but in its present state, is deadly. Eventually the both of them meet in a blood farm, and make a pact to escape together. The two of them travel across the post-apocalyptic landscape together, running into and barely escaping various dangers.
Fen’s story is told by herself, in a present-tense first-person style that lends immediacy to the narrative. It takes a little getting used to; Smith has chosen to flavor Fen’s voice with a slang that developed in Orleans, which is heavily influenced by African American English. By contrast, Daniel’s story is a traditional third person past-tense narrative; it’s a style that underscores his stranger-in-a-strange land predicament. Both styles complement each other very well.
This is a very dark novel. The world is in ruins, both inside and outside the Wall. Society has crumbled in Orleans; the tribes and individual free agents are vicious and violence blooms at any moment. Some of the scenes verge on outright horror. Smith avoids gore but the suggestion of violence, sometimes sexual is very powerful and disturbing. In many ways, Orleans is reminiscent of Octavia Butler’s work, particularly The Parable of the Sower and its sequel, The Parable of the Talents. Surface similarities are there: a young woman of color with grit and courage pitted against a hostile world. But there is also a deeper sense of social justice and outrage; the present is as much on trial here as the future. The specter of the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina haunts these pages. If the film Beasts of the Southern Wild dealt with the psychic stain of Katrina in fantasy terms, Orleans deals with it in science fictional ones. This subtext adds a richness and depth to this YA dystopia.
Craig Laurance Gidney is the author of Sea Swallow Me and Other Stories and Bereft. Gidney writes both contemporary, young adult and genre fiction. Recipient of the 1996 Susan C. Petrey Scholarship to the Clarion West writer’s workshop, Gidney has published works in the fantasy/science fiction, gay and young adult categories.