This one was a very pleasant surprise, guys. Smith managed to cram three different stories into one, plus add social commentary (which was a pretty ballsy thing to do, if I do say so myself) regarding the Gulf area and how the government has handle and continues to handle it during disasters - yet, she doesn't get preachy about it. Which is hard to do. If you're looking for an awesome adventure book with a disturbing facet of reality to it, look no further than "Orleans".
I don't think anyone who lives in the States will ever forget where they were during Katrina. I myself was into my second month of studying abroad in Tokyo, my first week after moving into the guesthouse and out of ICU's dorms. I remember making breakfast (or lunch?) that morning/afternoon, and putting on CNN international because I was feeling a bit homesick. What I saw made me drop a plate and start to cry. I was watching people on their rooftops, begging to be picked up by the coast guard/military/etc. I was watching Anderson Cooper nearly being blown away by the wind. I was watching the floodwaters rise and rise and I couldn't stop crying because of how horrible it was - even halfway across the globe. I couldn't do anything about it and yet I couldn't stop watching. My housemates, because of the noise, came to see what was going on. They looked at the TV, and then to me.
"What's wrong?" They asked, and I pointed to the TV. "I'm watching a city die", I said, and they still didn't quite get it. "It's a...tatsumaki," I'd been searching for the right word. "A hurricane. Katrina. And it's killing this city. And this part of the US." And then they got it. While most typhoons don't do much damage when they make landfall in Japan, they got it. A little dramatic? Maybe. But as I continued to watch the coverage and things worsen over the coming weeks and months, I still felt more than a bit numb over it. I'm a west coast girl. But when I see what I saw that day, it haunts me. And I, like many others who watched, still carry that helplessness of not really being able to help, except to call my mother and tell her to send part of my allowance to rebuilding efforts. That's all I could do.
But this author - her mother lived through Katrina. Just barely. With this ARC I also got a letter from the author, explaining why she wrote this book. Her mother had one dose of insulin left before the coast guard got her out of there. One dose left. I'm pre-diabetic, so I have to take metformin/glucophage, and I'll be on that for life. While it's not insulin, I understand the importance of how dire that one last dose is because it works the same way as insulin does - it's the difference between living and diabetic shock, and death. Her mother's story blew me away, and then the story of how Fen de la Guerre came to be was pretty inspirational. To write a story that seems so probable it actually gave me nightmares - about a government that will throw away people and cities (and does, whenever we have these disasters - just look at the people on Long Island after Sandy still living in tents!) that they can't fix, or don't want to fix, about a long-overdue pandemic, and about a place that is in a constant state of rebuilding, even after being left behind by its government...well, that takes balls. Huge ones. It's social commentary at its finest (and not preachy at all), and it's also a story of hope. About how these disasters can and do bring out the best in people, even after (and often after) it brings out the worst.
So I have immense respect for this author for even daring to bring out the social commentary hat on a subject that continues to be so very sensitive (and so very immediate and that needs fixing).
The technical aspects of this book were pretty much flawless, but I'll go into them anyway. From the first page, we have this immediate, solid, REAL feeling of the world, of Fen's very original and startlingly clear voice. She's built very sturdily, and she'll do anything to survive. It's that simple. If it means sacrificing something, or someone, she'll do it. Until Baby Girl. And then things get complicated. She has a character journey arc like one I haven't seen in recent YA speculative lit in awhile. And Daniel is a great foil to her, almost her complete opposite in every way, yet it all works. Even the most minor characters have a very real, 3D feeling to them, vibrantly so.
The world. I love it when speculative books use "historical documents", and opening the book with two of them really set the stage and created a great base for building. From there we have this destroyed gulf coast, more specifically, Orleans, with nicely timed infodumps that don't overwhelm the audience and are interspaced with lots of tension and action. What was also impressive is that Smith managed to make the world into one of the antagonists, if not THE main antagonist - full of disease and rot and a lack of civilization, it challenges Daniel and Fen wherever they go. It's incredibly difficult to make your world an antagonist, so my hat goes off to Smith there for being able to pull it off. There are other more minor antagonists (and there are lots of them), but the world itself is lush with all sorts of sensory language and imagery, and just captures your attention and doesn't let go until the very last page.
And then there's the tension/action. It just doesn't quit. The pace is fast, but it gives us enough time to linger in the places we need to linger. We're constantly getting shoved from behind with all kinds of crazy people (or things) on our heels until that last page. I love books like that, and this is one of those books. There's an immediacy you just can't ignore, and you'll definitely stay glued to those pages until the story's done. I know I did.
Finally, the social commentary. It's subtle up until Daniel enters the scene and starts his journey with Fen. And then it's all up front, not disguised much, and very blatant. Even though Orleans is still surviving (just in a different way from the Outer States), Fen and the rest of its inhabitants make no bones about how bitter they are about the divorce from the rest of the country that was pretty much against their will, and a case of total abandonment. In so many recent disasters, while things have gotten somewhat better than Katrina (at least in terms of pre-storm prep), there's still a long way to go. And Smith warns us of the result in this book with the history of Orleans vs the Outer States as a foretelling to real life of sorts. I love that she went there, and that she obviously had no bones about talking about how the government needs to get on emergency management fast - yet it's not all finger-shaking - she thanks the coast guard in her acknowledgments for saving her mom. And that, after all of the insults of Katrina, takes humility, I think. To put aside that general anger long enough to thank them for the one good thing they did. And that's what ends up mattering the most, both in this book and in real life - that one good thing that people can do that can save lives, or help them.
Final verdict? One of the best speculative fiction books all year so far, and one of my faves of 2013 so far, "Orleans" will take your breath away with its savagery and hope. "Orleans" is out now from Penguin in North America, so be sure to check it out when you get the chance.
(posted to goodreads, shelfari, and birthofanewwitch.wordpress.com)”