A Shot of Pure Imagination: The Ballad of Perilous Graves

I could hardly wait to read this book when I first heard about it back in June of 2022, but I held my not-quite-alive-but-not-dead horses about it and waited until recently for my turn to select it for our monthly book club.

See, in real life, New Orleans is the type of place that doesn’t even need the suspension of disbelief required of a book or other work of fiction. I Googled a history of the city, and the first result, History of New Orleans from neworleans.com, reads like the wiki page of a fantasy novel. Highlights include:

  • Colonial New Orleans
  • Beset by Pirates and Privateers
  • Mardi Gras (of course)
  • Highest concentration of Millionares in mid 1800s
  • Victorian New Orleans
  • The Dawn of Jazz
  • Katrina

I’m sure I could pull soo much more out of the article too if only I could sit still long enough to do more than skim something these days. Anyway, the point is, New Orleans is already its own speculative reality.

I’ve been twice, and can confirm, the city is exactly as surreal and baffling as it sounds. Music of all kinds seems to leak from any open door, window, or crevice. There’s no shortage of new and interesting kinds of food. In one bar we went to (which had no sign and required a passcode), there were literal vampires, and someone had struck up a conversation about opening their third eye.

(I’ve also recently learned that cab drivers won’t pick up fares in certain areas because there are too many ghosts which often disappear before the ride is done and stiff the driver)

And of course, perhaps the most fantastical element of real-life New Orleans: you’re ALLOWED TO DRINK OUTSIDE. Like pretty much anywhere . . . so far as I could tell.

Anyway, what if a writer was to pour his considerable imagination and love for this amazing city into a piece of fiction? What might we find there? A super human girl who can lift cars? Floating 3D graffitti which gives people such a pleasureable high that they abandon jobs and families and lives to follow these tags around like a bunch of technicolor zombies? Actual zombies? Driving undead carriages through a part of town reserved for those who are quite dead but not quite gone?

Whatever the F*@k a nutria is?

These are the promises of Alex Jenning’s The Ballad of Perilous Graves, and in those promises, the book succeeds in droves. Somehow, he is able to take an already heightened reality and turn it up even more. Way past 11. Maybe 12, or even 20.

There is no shortage of imagination in this book. I think perhaps most readers will give a raving review on these merits alone. I nearly did myself as I’m pretty much a worldbuilding junky.

However, my main critique (and seemingly the same complaints of the others in the book club), is that this book is LONG. It takes a long time to read and it’s not just because the book is 453 pages. It’s because the reader cannot go nearly a full one of those pages without a break in scene, a jump backward in time, or a jump . . . sideways? . . . . in time?

The cast of heroes is thankfully not too large (4 ish really), but this gets somewhat complicated by the (slight spoiler) fact that some of them have doubles which aren’t delineated very clearly until three quarters through the book when they start interacting with each other.

There are at least three main villains. On the order of nine McGuffins and a whole host of bizarre settings of which an underwater bar in the renovated hull of a crashed UFO is not even the wackiest (again 20/10 worldbuilding).

Within all of that, we also have a post-op trans man as one of the main characters. I’m undecided as to whether or not I would have liked to see this element brought forward more. I understand that every story with a trans person does not need to be ABOUT being trans, but also these kind of details are not for nothing. If there was a greater significance (or message) present within his inclusion, it seemed (to me) to get lost amongst the rest of the noise.

Given all of these elements, it’s pretty much a miracle the book is as comprehensible as it is. However, I eventually did find myself weighed down by keeping track of all of these elements and by the last third I just wanted to get to the end.

Give this One A Read?

If you’re someone who doesn’t mind feeling a bit (ok a bunch) lost while reading a book and are interested in a concentrated shot of pure imagination, definitely give this book a read. I cannot imagine a better tribute to such an amazing city.

If you’re going to get annoyed trying to keep about a million details in your head, and frustrated if they’re not consistent (they may be I just stopped checking after a while), perhaps this is one to pass on.

That’s it for me this week. Has anyone read this? Which part of Hidden NOLA would you like to see in “real” NOLA (I’d say sky trolleys FTW!)? What were your favorite parts? Your least favorite parts? Please let me know in the comments!


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