Reviews | Written by Andrew Marshall 20/06/2022

THE BALLAD OF PERILOUS GRAVES

Welcome to Nola, a city of magic and wonder. A world of living music and chordal sorcery, where art comes alive, public transport soars through the air, and the undead roam at will. A world that will soon be destroyed by a gathering supernatural storm unless a young boy can locate the missing songs that power its beating heart and hold its surreal reality together.

The secret to crafting an alt-reality world is not the changes you make to a familiar place, but rather keeping enough the same that the setting is eminently recognisable even in its altered form. Such is the case with Perilous Graves’ Nola. An off-kilter incarnation of New Orleans, the city’s restless spirit is perfectly captured in the juxtaposition of the historical and the contemporary that even with the inclusion of various fantasy aspects couldn’t be any other place on the planet. So rich is it in imagination that the existence of people addicted to the sensation of walking through graffiti tags that untether from walls and float down the street, gradually consuming their body in luminous paint, is a mere detail of the setting. Further blurring the lines between dreamscape and reality are real-life figures such as Lafcadio Hearn, a writer and myth collector, and Lee Shelton, a gangster immortalised in folk song, and there is even the tacit suggestion that New Orleans is some kind of nexus of realities where the fantastical and the mundane can exist side-by-side.

Centring the tale is the eponymous Perilous “Perry” Graves, who along with his younger sister Brendy and their friend Peaches, is thrust into the role of reluctant hero and tasked with saving the city. Along his journey, he faces questions about who he wants to be, as well as the growing realisation that age does not necessarily equal wisdom and that in many ways the adults who dispatched the trio on their quest are just as clueless as they are about what is actually going on. In keeping with the former, running through the story is a major theme of identity; be it regarding name, ancestry, character, gender, ambition, self-perception, destiny, or even the very nature of being a valid living person, only you can make the decision regarding who you truly are.

True to its setting, music plays a huge role in the story, even though you wouldn’t have thought such a concept would work in text form as the necessary aural factor would be difficult to translate. However, such is the vibrancy of Jennings’ writing in bringing his world to life, the city’s melodic energy and poetic soul are dynamically evoked even without regularly including the song lyrics running through featured characters’ minds.

The story is a lengthy and sprawling one that rewards the concentration required to hold together its disparate strands until they eventually converge. Indeed, the title even suggests that it’s a song in book form, the jazz accompaniment underscoring the lyrical prose even when it’s just out of earshot, while its improvisational nature lurches the narrative into new and unexpected directions that ultimately coalesce into a multi-faceted yet satisfying whole.