Title: The Ballad of Perilous Graves
Author: Alex Jennings
Publication date: June 21, 2022
One Sentence Summary: Charged by the magical Doctor Professor to find some songs that escaped from his piano, Perry Graves, his younger sister Brendy, and their friend Peaches get more than they bargained for as the Storm is coming.
At its heart, The Ballad of Perilous Graves is about Perry. This is his story of how he saved New Orleans. There was a lot packed into this book and so many little details that needed to be paid attention to because they built on each other. It’s easily confusing, but I really enjoyed the focus on the music and magic. I felt swept up in the story and the world and absolutely loved the main characters. I did feel it was really slow to start with nothing really interesting happening until about halfway through, and then, when it did start happening, it never really stopped. The world was fascinating and strange, but I loved it. The characters were so much fun, and I adored Perry. The story felt too layered and like there was more going on than there were pages for, so there were many times I felt confused. But this was a fun book that swept me away.
In Nola, Perry Graves is looking forward to summer vacation, but his little sister has magic (he’s determined he has none) and their best friend is the strongest girl they know. It isn’t long before Doctor Professor starts to appear with his magical piano in his neighborhood, deviating from the places he usually materializes. He charges the children with finding his nine escaped songs, songs that keep Nola running smoothly with its sky trolleys, its zombies, its haints, and its magic. It’s dangerous, but Perry and Brendy’s mother is the daughter of a Wise Woman, and Wise Women have tools that get passed down to Perry and Brendy, no matter how much it scares Perry. A Storm is brewing, though. A Storm that might spell Nola’s end because a powerful haint has awakened and has plans of its own.
The Ballad of Perilous Graves drops the reader straight into a magical alternate version of New Orleans, but it’s really so much more than that. This is kind of a crazy ride where, if you don’t read slowly and carefully enough, you might miss some important details, and maybe an entire world. I loved that this focused on a trio of children and that they took their charge seriously, but not without some fear. I also loved this version of Nola, where I felt like I was there, where the world wasn’t just built through what it looked like and how it functioned, but also in the speech patterns and the phrasing used in the narrative. I loved how far reaching this story was, how it went back and forth in time and literally spanned worlds. But it was hard to follow sometimes and I felt it left some loose ends and other things unexplained. As fantastic as I found the world to be, I felt like it bit off a little more than it could chew.
The world is the highlight, despite how confusing it was. The description mentions Nola and Away, and these are actually pretty important things to pay attention to because there’s a collision of worlds about two-thirds of the way in and, if I hadn’t been paying enough attention, would have completely missed it and, thus, being thoroughly confused. Nola is the primary setting. It’s an alternate version of New Orleans and really plays it up. Outside of the haints, zombies, and a magical piano man who randomly appears and makes people dance, it felt like it gave me the spirit of New Orleans as I’ve never been. But I liked that it didn’t focus on Mardi Gras. Instead, it’s set at the beginning of summer vacation and the city is just chugging along. The sky trolleys sounded fascinating and, if it weren’t for them, I fully expected to be transported straight to New Orleans. It’s a fascinating world full of music and magic, with paintbodies lumbering around and zombies going about their daily undead lives alongside everyone else. Then there’s Away, which, I think, is the real New Orleans. Nola is essentially set atop New Orleans, but the magic seems to bleed through in a way I didn’t really understand. Even more confusing, there’s also a Dead Side of Nola, which was just creepy and weird and kind of the seedy side of town. It definitely felt like way too much at times, but I still found myself amazed at the detail given to Nola and how it was just a really great setting for this magical story.
The story itself is fairly simple: three kids are sent out to find the nine songs Doctor Professor needs in order to keep Nola functioning smoothly. But another layer is added when a dangerous man with a gun is seeking the same songs as the kids. And then there’s yet another when it turns out a Storm is brewing and it could spell the end of Nola. Honestly, I found the story to be both the most confusing and the least interesting part of this book. It spent a lot of time setting up the world and the relationships between the characters as well as something I felt just fell by the wayside for most of the book. It was slow to start and really get going, so I wasn’t really sure where it was going or what was supposed to be happening. Then the second half hit and suddenly everything was happening. It was all so fast I could barely keep up. There are details that build up on details that turn into important pieces, but it’s difficult to remember and follow all of them. It felt like more things were just being pulled out of a hat and sometimes I just couldn’t follow why or how they were supposed to be connected. It left loose ends and things unexplained so, by the end, I wasn’t exactly sure what this book was supposed to be about. But it was also my least favorite part of the story, and not just because it was confusing. Compared to the characters and the world, it just felt like the weaker piece. I didn’t feel myself become caught up in what was happening. It might have been because there was so much going on, but I also felt like too much was thrown into the mix so, by the end, there was just no space to fully see everything through, so I felt let down.
But the characters were amazing. It’s focused on three kids who all appear to be younger than 13, but are thrown into a world full of danger and magic they barely understand. In many ways they are typical children, each speaking as a child of about their age would speak and throwing fits as a child would. But they’re three determined children who know what they need to do and who will do what they have to no matter how terrifying and uncomfortable. There are also some interesting adult characters, a couple of whom just completely confused me because of the different worlds that exist in this book. But I appreciated Perry and Brendy’s mother the most. In books with children, I find that either the parents are completely absent or just let their kids merrily go their own way. In The Ballad of Perilous Graves, there are parents who express concern and fear and make their kids do certain things. They also understand what their kids have to go through, but they will try to protect as much as possible while providing what support they could.
The Ballad of Perilous Graves is Perry’s story. In this case, it felt very much like a heroic ballad with Perry at the center even though some of the other characters nudged him out of the limelight at times. But this is his story, his story of struggles and fears and coming to terms with himself and his destiny. Actually, the story made a whole lot more sense to me when I thought of it as the ballad of Perry. He was a fascinating, complex character with deep insecurities and fears. He doesn’t believe he’s magic, but, time and again, the reader is shown just how exceptional he is. He’s really a good kid and tries hard to take care of Brendy and Peaches. His crush on Peaches is adorable and sweet, but he never tries to hold her back. I felt his story in the second half was hurried up to the point where I lost track of his characterization, especially since the first half set him up so well and then the thread felt like it was let loose a little too much. Still, I adored Perry.
Then there’s Brendy and Peaches. These two girls are incredibly strong and smart. I loved how Brendy never let anyone get in her way, yet still acted very much like the child and younger sister she is. She felt like a spitfire to me, being bossy and bold. Sometimes I thought she acted older than her age, but she’s unique and magical and I just fell in love with her from the start. She’s feisty and fun. I also really liked Peaches, but I had a harder time pinning her down. She’s clearly a magical child who adores animals and has clearly defined boundaries between her and Perry that he follows. She has exceptional strength and a penchant for disappearing. But she’ll also protect her friends at all costs. There were times when she felt young, and times when she felt older. Sometimes she even felt a little like a wild child, but she has a strong sense of duty and will do whatever she needs to.
The characters I was most confused by were Casey and Jaylon. Cousins, they were involved in tagging, as in leaving graffiti, until something went horribly wrong and Casey left New Orleans for an extended period of time. Casey actually felt a little boring, with much of his story detailing his day to day life or his love of art. Clearly, the cousins are close, but I had a hard time figuring out how they played into the story. Their involvement was the most confusing thing, and really required some close reading and a full attention. I have no idea just how integral they are to the story, but I kind of wish they hadn’t been there.
The Ballad of Perilous Graves is a bit of a wild ride full of magic and music. There are lyrics woven through the story, but, considering the music of New Orleans isn’t the kind I’ve listened to much, I had a hard time hearing it in my head. I did love the idea of songs having escaped the piano and are now wandering around, though. I loved how the love of music was so well woven through the book and how the magic just felt like a piece of the world. This was an incredible read, but it’s meant to consume one’s attention. There are little details everywhere. I did feel fully immersed in this book and, every time something came together, it felt like a part of my understanding just exploded a little. It wasn’t always easy to follow, but it was easier to enjoy and feel the magic of Nola.
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Thank you to Angela Man at Orbit and NetGalley for a review copy. All opinions expressed are my own.
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