My friend Suzanne Johnson's first published novel came out this week: *Royal Street* (http://www.amazon.com/Royal-Street-Suzanne-Johnson/dp/0765327791). Suzanne was living in New Orleans when Katrina hit, and turned her experience into an urban fantasy about New Orleans wizards dealing with the aftermath. Suzanne tells me that interleaving her story with the timeline of actual events presented a major pacing problem, but it certainly doesn't show in the finished book. The story may not be quick, but it feels confidently-paced to me, and the highly credible details of the post-Katrina disaster are well worth the trouble.
One amazing thing about this being Suzanne's first published novel is that within a year or so she'll have a total of *six* books in print, three in the Royal Street series published by Tor Books and three paranormal romances with Montlake, Amazon's new romance imprint. Having been fortunate enough to critique several of her novels, I think I know why she's had such quick success.
One of Suzanne's outstanding attributes as a writer is her willingness to listen to feedback and make intelligent use of it. I think the first scene of hers I critiqued was a fight scene that had all the common faults I see in unpublished manuscript fight scenes: too heavy on the stage management and too light on storytelling. In its final form Suzanne's scene could almost serve as a textbook example of how to do an action scene right.
Another example of her work ethic is how character-driven the finished novel feels; Suzanne is by nature a plotter, but she went back over her scenes and made sure that the character actions and reactions made sense. *Royal Street's* protagonist "DJ" is credible as an intelligent but fallible and slightly rash twenty-five year old woman . DJ is trying to establish herself professionally and chafes at the lack of trust her superiors put in her opinions, but Suzanne doesn't fall into the common trap of making DJ childishly resentful. Male characters in the early drafts were cartoonishly testosterone poisoned, in the final draft they have nuance and complexity.
I think Suzanne's particular gift as a writer is for world building. Without overwhelming us with detail she gives us a world in which there are a number of different styles of magic: physical (fireball throwing), ceremonial ("geek magic": potions, enchantments and conjurations), psychic magic and artistic magic. This is played out against a dual world; the mundane world in which the New Orleans we know exists, and "Beyond", the place of myth and legends where "Old New Orleans" exists. Old New Orleans has dispensed with daytime altogether and goes straight from dawn to sunset. Most of that detail was there from the earliest drafts.
There are few problems with the novel still. Several "surprise twists" would fail to surprise an attentive reader, and I think there are places where the story could have used more suspense.
Perhaps the biggest issues with this story isn't a matter of craft, it's a question of taste. I think when Suzanne started this story she was unsure whether she was writing UF or PNR. This is evident in the way powerful and desirable men lust after DJ. That would be an unremarkable convention in genre romance but is a bit dicey in a book intended for a fantasy oriented readership. Unfortunately this flirtation with romance is particularly strong in the opening scene, and that might turn some readers off. If romance isn't your thing, read on for a chapter or two. This author has more than one arrow in her quiver.
*Royal Street* is a solid urban fantasy from a promising new author. While not without its faults, it is thoughtfully crafted and entertaining. I've watched Suzanne grow as a writer along with this book, and expect terrific things from her in the future.
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