Alex Jennings’ 2022 The Ballad of Perilous Graves is a stand-alone modern fantasy novel. Ballad is Jennings’ debut novel.
Young Perilous “Perry” Graves has many things about which to worry. Right now, the most pressing concern is his friend Peaches. Peaches is a fixture in Perry’s New Orleans neighborhood, yet Perry has not seen Peaches in weeks.
Perry could use a distraction. Nothing distracts like an apocalypse.
In any other city, someone like Peaches would attract attention. The minor lives by herself, does not attend school, and is possessed of superhuman strength. New Orleans isn’t any other city, however. Flying streetcars are overhead, magic walks its streets, and songs take mortal form. Peaches is just another one of New Orleans’ wonders.
Peaches’ reappearance is followed by reassurance that is but momentary. Peaches complains of a stolen letter and drafts Perry and his younger sister Brendy into a search. Also, and more seriously, Perry’s grandfather vanishes, kidnapped by person or persons unknown. Or perhaps by entities for whom the label ‘person’ is wildly inappropriate.
And of even more moment … all across New Orleans, manifestations of local magic are vanishing. People are dying, brutally murdered to prevent them from interfering. Someone is going to have to step up and save the city and that someone is going to have to be young Perry.
Perry would argue that he’s no savior. He’s just a boy, a failed sorcerer. But in fact, he didn’t fail so much as he hesitated to pay magic’s price. Now, however, he won’t be given a choice in the matter.
It might seem bit unkind to saddle a schoolkid with the task of opposing the Big Bad. Be assured that while Perry does take on a man’s job, there are adults doing their best to assist. It’s just that circumstances (and a murder spree inflicted on characters who might otherwise derail the plot1) are such that Perry is uniquely positioned to intervene.
Peaches seems to be New Orleans’ answer to Pippi Långstrump. The parallels are too many for this to be a coincidence. One might therefore expect her to step in to save the day but she is, for all her gifts, just a supporting character.
Canadian authors are supposedly obsessed with a sense of place in their fiction. If so, they’ve found their match in Jennings, whose novel is not set in a generic anytown, but a very specific post-Katrina New Orleans. Jennings does a skillful job of bringing this New Orleans to life. The author takes his time doing so; the novel’s pace is almost languorous, as various elements of the setting are examined in turn.
The characters are engaging. I wish I could be even more prolix than usual and discuss the cast of characters (large) at length. Perry may be the protagonist, but he’s no chosen one next to whom all others are mere spear carriers.
Ballad is a strong debut, strong enough that I was a bit disappointed that it was a debut and there are no other novels for me to hunt down (Well, there is a short story collection.) At least I can truthfully say that I’ve already binged on Jennings’ novels to date….
1: This isn’t Pratchett-esque narrative where the villain is forced by story logic to create his own nemesis. Rather, the Big Bad does a pretty good job of clearing the decks of potential impediments. However, New Orleans turns out to have a pretty deep bench of adepts. A sensible occult schemer would have picked pretty much any other city than New Orleans to bedevil … but, in this case, there is a very good reason why it had to be New Orleans.