Initial reaction: I'm wholeheartedly thanking the author for writing a proper dystopian society that sounds like an actual dystopian society with harrowing stakes and horrific scenarios. "Orleans" was a great story, and I'll admit it tugged at my heartstrings in moments, though I'll also admit I wished there was a little more to it in some places. Probably going to get a solid 4 stars from me, and hope to explain a bit more about it in the full review.
To start my review on Sherri Smith's "Orleans", I have to say that I'm glad there's an author in the YA spectrum that actually treats the dystopian genre with a proper, non-glorified world with a character who isn't fated to save the world for some *special* superpower or somehow lends a backdrop to romance where the realm takes a lesser priority for its respective realities. If there's something about Smith's world that is distinctive in this genre - not only does it include a racially diverse cast and plausible - but frightening - future, but it also includes characters who are plunged into this horrific setup and must overcome dire situations to accomplish the things they must do in a realistic way.
Fen de la Guerre is a young woman who lives in Orleans, in a future where a number of U.S. States (Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida) have all separated the union due to several hurricanes that have devastated the Gulf. Too many casualties, too little supplies, and too much sickness - with a Fever that has no cure. Fen is a part of the OP tribe. In this devastated image of what was once New Orleans, people separate themselves by bloodtype, and survival hinges on one's ability to get untainted blood. It's revealed that some tribes even drink the blood they need if they can't inject themselves with it, so it's a grim picture to follow. Fen lives with a friend who acts as leader of her respective tribe, but when the tribe is attacked by scavengers, and her friend dies in childbirth, she has to take on the task of caring for the child and finding a way to get the baby to safety from those who would want to sell her or harm her otherwise.
In the meantime, failed researcher Daniel goes alone into Orleans and the ceded area to find the missing piece of his attempts to find a cure for the Fever. He hopes to find something in the documentation of previous researchers in the area to help him find the missing part of his attempt at a cure, rather than a supervirus that could wipe out the population within a matter of moments due to the nature of the infection.
Both Daniel and Fen end up meeting in Orleans and have far more of a task of survival on their hands than they bargained for.
"Orleans" is told in a dual narrative style - from Fen's first person dialect to Daniel's presentation in third person limited. Once I adjusted to the way the narrative was presented, it became easier to follow as I went along. I did find it a bit of a jarring transition though. I think it probably would've been a little better with consistency - either sticking with first person or third, but not the two of them. I didn't mind the dual narrative between Fen or Daniel at all, and I though Pen's distinct dialect made her voice stand out very well. I'll admit that the two characters also have a narrative that keeps them both at arms length for most of the work, so it wasn't nearly as intimate of an experience as I was hoping for in the course of the work, but I did realize both of these character had events in their experience that shaped them to be emotionally distant. So maybe it was just as well that the narrative styles matched their dispositions.
Fen is really the heroine of this collective story when all the events are taken into consideration. I loved her, she was a strong woman and the kind of female character you don't see in many narratives in YA dystopians. She's tasked with taking care of the baby that her friend died in labor for. After her tribe's dissipation from a dire attack fraught with loss, she's left much on her own to try to figure the next step. Fen's a survivor, and given some of the things she's gone through in the past to the present storyline, it tugged on my heartstrings to know what she had to endure even as a young child to get to the point where she was. Considering she's only a teenager, high school age, it's like she's lived several lives over. The grim reality and the grit this story presents from her perspective is really what made this novel work for me.
Daniel was a character I'll admit I was more disappointed with in certain turns of this story. In the beginning, I admired his goals, his technology (his suit was awesome, well - when it worked, anyway) and realized that in his entry to Orleans, he's entering a world he has no idea how it functions and where to get his bearings. It makes sense that eventually he would team up with Fen, and I liked the rapport between them. But Daniel...never really accomplished anything he set out to do in this story. While one could argue that this really wasn't his story to carry, I thought his character could've amounted to more than what it did, and it really disappointed me that he wasn't. Whether that was by his own follies (and he had several of them) or by the fact he never really had the space in the story to do more than what he did, I'm not sure if it was more one than the other. I do think his efforts in the latter part of the novel were good, especially in conjunction with Fen's rather desperate plan, but I still think that his character was not much more than a placeholder for that ultimate plan.
The worldbuilding in this story was beautifully constructed, and probably one of the strongest aspects of this entire narrative. I was immersed in the world, the devastation, the sense of loss and disparity, and even the sharp social commentary on a "new" type of discrimination in the realm of Orleans. Not by race, but by blood type for survival. It was a bleak future, and one in which every fight had significant weight. I did feel somewhat shortchanged in reading this narrative for some details though, because while the world was constructed very well, it felt like for events in the actual story, there were pieces missing - like it could've had more to Fen and Daniel's journey than what it had. Like the narrative was meant to be longer. I almost wish it had been to cover those gaps and provide more wiggle room and emotional intimacy for those characters.
The ending was reminiscent of my experience with Malorie Blackman's Noughts and Crosses. I didn't really see it coming until it hit me in the back of my head and realized the weight of what the characters had to do to protect the baby and get her out beyond the Wall for a potentially better life. If you think about the narrative for goals, that was one of the biggest goals promised by its end. Unfortunately, I wish some of the other goals had more measure to them as well.
It's a good story, and one I enjoyed for what it offered, but I'll admit, it wasn't an immediate knockout the way Smith's "Flygirl" was with me. I enjoyed it, and I'd be willing to read a sequel to the narrative if it has one to fill in some of the afternotes of where this novel left on, but it did leave me with spaces that yearned for more. It's a valuable social commentary on measures after the U.S.'s very real experiences with Hurricane Katrina. Ultimately, this dystopian scenario shows that as a divided nation, we are not as strong as one unified, and in the face of tragedy, there's both desperation for survival - in corrupt and constructive ways - and hope for a better future.
Overall score: 4/5 stars