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The Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex Jennings3 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsThe beauty of jazz music is its absolute artistic freedom. Jazz musicians obey only their own rules, going exactly where their muse takes them in the moment. Sometimes such freedom leads to self-indulgence, to music that can be far too obscure and demanding for many audiences to understand and accept. But mostly, it creates a space in which artistic self-expression can thrive in ways more conventional music just doesn’t offer.

Jazz permeates the very soul of Alex Jennings’ debut urban fantasy The Ballad of Perilous Graves. Even the title reflects the importance of music to the very heart of New Orleans. Jennings is a New Orleans writer and geek culture polymath who has written his first book as a love letter to his city, an urban landscape like no other in America. It’s a city that manages to stay vibrant and alive despite bearing the scars of some of the worst natural disasters in this country’s history, not to mention the subsequent governmental neglect. Between 1851-2004, eighteen hurricanes of Category 3 or higher have hit the Louisiana coast. Since Katrina, when the levees broke, at least ten more, big and small, have struck the Big Easy itself. This would be brutal even if the city hadn’t been built six and a half feet below sea level. But New Orleans defiantly refuses to go down easy. It’s almost as if it has some brave guardians defending it.

Perilous Antoine Graves is a ten-year-old boy living with his parents and kid sister Brendy in Nola, an alternate New Orleans in which the streetcars are airborne, ghost taxis are driven by talking nutrias, zombies casually roam the streets, and graffiti tags take on a life of their own and float through the air down city streets. When the specter of the Doctor Professor appears one humid afternoon, playing his ghostly piano outside near Perry’s Jackson Street house, everyone knows it signals something unusual, possibly even trouble. Just how much trouble we soon find out. Nola is a city in which songs themselves are living, magical entities, and someone or something has stolen nine of Doctor Professor’s most important songs from his piano, songs that are vital to protecting the city against the great Storm of all storms that is fast approaching.

The Doctor Professor charges Perry and Brendy with helping to recover his songs. Perry isn’t sure he’s cut out for this. Their late grandmother on their mother’s side, Mama Lisa, was a Wise Woman, but Perry doesn’t believe he inherited any of her magic. He’s never been able to learn piano or any other instrument, and in frustration over his apparent lack of a musical gift, even asked his parents if he could change schools, a change he doesn’t realize really upset Brendy. Still, the kids undertake the quest with the aid of their young neighbor (and Perry’s crush) Peaches, who possesses superpowers and has some troubles of her own.

We also meet Casey Ravel, a trans man living and working in our world’s version of New Orleans in 2018. (The two cities overlap, sort of like the ones in China Miéville’s The City & the City.) After leaving New Orleans right after Katrina and spending years on the east coast, Casey has moved back. Reuniting with his cousin and closest friend, Jaylon, Casey discovers a startling phenomenon. He and Jayl are both artists, and used to go out tagging together. But some of Casey’s street art is changing, and Jayl has, to their complete shock, figured out how to paint tags that hover in the air and don’t seem to need a solid surface. Jayl soon goes missing after a tragic and possibly fatal fire in his studio, and when Casey encounters a local musician at a rooftop bar that doesn’t actually seem to exist, his ideas about whether reality is all that he believed it to be get a real challenge.

The first half of this novel is simply dynamite. The kids are immediately likable, and the atmosphere of the city is rendered with meticulous care and attention to detail, an achievement Jennings impressively pulls off without making the lazy choice of including Mardi Gras.

Art is centered as the beating heart of New Orleans life, whether it’s the street art of Casey and Jayl, or the music that plays throughout nearly every chapter. (Jennings has even put together a Spotify playlist to help readers get fully immersed.) Jennings takes his time establishing things, but it’s never dull and he never infodumps. A lot of the time, we’re just asked to roll with things, without firm explanations. Peaches and her superpowers, for instance, are just taken for granted in the beginning. Peaches feels just like one of the kids, even when she’s facing down angry ghosts at the cemetery.

As much as I wish I could tell you I loved this book unconditionally, things get much rougher in the second half. At 450 pages, the book is overlong like a John Coltrane solo, and just as rambling. Confusion results from Jennings’ structural choices in the narrative. Multiple story threads unfold at once, which Jennings doesn’t yet have the discipline to pull off. At just past the halfway mark, the action gets so fast and frenetic that it’s often hard to tell who’s doing what when, or even where the characters are in physical relation to each other. We find out one major character has a double. We’re introduced to a minor character in a way that makes us think he’s going to be important, even a viewpoint character, only to see him completely abandoned by the end of the chapter. It all creates an awkward sense that a hundred things are happening all at once, but very little is being done to move the plot forward. The faster the pacing gets, the messier the story gets, and it can leave you feeling more exhausted than excited.

So I don’t think Alex Jennings gets everything to work in this magnificent, untamed hurricane of a book. And yet the sheer creative energy here, and the way he absolutely scores when he gets something right, marks Jennings as a formidable new talent, brimming with originality and even a kind of creative ferocity. The best moments of Jennings’ writing feel like watching a fantastic live set performed in the kind of dimly lit jazz club that the tourists don’t know about. I’m excited to see what he’s gonna play next.