Ms. Smith, who wrote the acclaimed historical fiction novel, Flygirl, enters the wold of dystopian fiction with her new (2013) novel, Orleans. The book is set in the future, sometime after the year 2025, after seven ferocious hurricanes have pounded the Gulf coast, after those hurricanes and Delta Fever, a deadly virus, have decimated the population, and after the United States has turned itself into two separate countries: the quarantined Delta Coast and the rest of the U.S., The Outer States, with a Wall in between and no travel between the two.
Fen de la Guerre is an OP (blood type O-positive). The people who are left in the Delta Coast, in the city of Orleans, live in tribal groups according to blood type, because the Delta Fever is somehow more deadly when it crosses blood type, or maybe because some blood types prey on others for transfusions that keep them alive for a while. (I never did quite follow the virus/blood type/transfusion connection.) Anyway, Fen’s tribe is attacked a bunch of AB’s, and Fen ends up with an orphaned baby that she has promised to somehow smuggle to a better life.
Enter Daniel, a scientist from the Outer States, who is working on a cure for Delta Fever. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have his cure quite perfected yet, and he needs to do research in Orleans itself, despite the dangers of life in the Delta Coast. Daniel and Fen meet, under less than ideal circumstances, as captives about to be drained of their blood by a group of kidnappers/blood sellers. They become allies and help each other escape, and so the story goes on. Will Daniel find a cure for Delta Fever? Will Fen be able to save the baby girl with whom she’s been entrusted? Will the perils of the Delta claim both of their lives before they can accomplish anything or even really trust each other?
The setting is a little bit like Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities, “a world destroyed and reconfigured by climate change and the greed of oil hungry corporations and industries.” But I don’t think Sherri Smith’s book is really derivative as much as coincidentally similar, and I really liked Orleans better than I did the award-winning Ship Breaker. I have to use the H-word in explanation and say that although it deserves the moniker “dystopian”, Orleans is ultimately just more hopeful than Bacigalupi’s series. And I do like a dose of hope.
However, don’t expect too much goodness and light in this mostly grim world of deadly disease and blood feuds. The ending is ambiguous, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a sequel to Orleans someday, if the publishing gods and Ms. Smith see fit to continue the story. I’d give it a read if they did.
Recommended for fans of dystopian fiction and Southern fiction, especially if a combination of the two genres sounds good to you.