by Alex Jennings
The two things I splurge on are books and music, so a book based on the magical powers of music seemed right up my alley. The Ballad of Perilous Graves is centered in a fantastical world with connections to our own in which music and art are at the foundation.
The titular Perilous Graves is a young boy who goes by the name Perry and recently finished fifth grade. His younger sister is Brendy and a super-powered girl named Peaches is his best friend. They all live in Nola, which appears to be very much like our New Orleans. There are significant differences, however, such as flying trolley cars, a city of the dead, and everyday existence of magic. Musicians, like Doctor Professor, pop up out of thin air. But when Doctor Professor shows up in front of Perry’s house in the opening scene, it seems that something isn’t quite right.
In fact, something is very wrong. Nola is built on an album of songs, which keep the city humming. But someone – or something – is kidnapping the songs and destroying them, taking bits of the city with them. When Perry’s grandpa disappears too, Perry feels compelled to solve the mystery. Despite their youth, he, Brendy, and Peaches begin to scour the city, trying to knit together all the seeming disparate threads floating around them. Additionally, Perry must surmount the feelings of fear and inadequacy stemming from some unknown traumatic even earlier in his life.
The adventures in Nola would be enough for a book on its own, but there’s more! While Perry and his friends race around Nola searching for the missing songs, things are afoot in “our” New Orleans. Casey, who left New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, has returned to his roots. He begins to reconnect with his cousin Jaylon and their shared history of street art. But New Orleans is at risk as well, and slowly, Casey and Perry draw together.
The Ballad of Perilous Graves tackles a lot. The magic of music and art permeates the entire story. In addition, Jennings explores the deep scars left by big storms. In Casey’s story, it’s Katrina, but Nola has endured its share and is gearing up for another possible killer. Race, gender, family, tourism, and gentrification are all wrapped up in here as well. In addition to our two settings, multiverses make an appearance and expand the settings even further.
At times, it’s a bit much and the story threatens to buckle under the weight. But Jennings’ love for New Orleans radiates through the pages and makes both version of the city characters in their own rights. I suspect that for people who have a connection to New Orleans, this book will hold a deeper meaning. Having unfortunately never been myself, I can’t speak to that with any authority, but if you have and read this book, let me know!
I struggled a bit with this one. I was completely lost on the connection between Nola and New Orleans for most of the book or whether there was supposed to be one or not, although I was ok with waiting to see where it went. It wasn’t always clear how Nola worked, but it was still a fun place to get lost in. Things started coming together a little after the halfway mark and then nearly came apart again. Yet Perry is a compelling character and I really wanted to know what was going to happen to him. I’m glad I stayed with it. Maybe at some point I’ll read it again – I have a feeling it’s the kind of book that you can get more out of with subsequent readings. And for a debut novel, it’s very impressive!
So as we come up on Mardi Gras and you’re looking for a magical New Orleans tale, check out The Ballad of Perilous Graves!