Publisher: Titan Books
Writer: Bryan Camp
At a certain number of pages in I had to stop to google The City of Lost Fortunes, in order to find out precisely where in the sequence of ‘Crescent City Novel’ books it sits. Apparently – I checked several times – it’s actually the first, and currently only one, but it doesn’t read that way. Author Bryan Camp appears to have created a fully-formed universe with complex and interwoven character back-stories that are highly relevant to the plot of this novel. But instead of vast amounts of exposition on past events and relationships, he simply drops the reader into the flow of the story, throwing them a hint or a glancing description, telling them what has changed but not necessarily how things were before.
At first I found it a little frustrating, this not-knowing, this missing information. It feels like coming into a TV show on the second or third episode: you can easily pick up what’s happening, but you want to go back and find out what you missed, except – those other episodes don’t exist. But I quickly realised that the sense of unease that I was feeling was in all likelihood deliberately created by a writer playing with the idea of things lost and found, with fragments and snatches that eventually come together and whose meaning and connections are revealed, in alignment with the theme and title of the novel.
Set in post-Katrina New Orleans, the story hinges around the losses that the city and its people have suffered. But not physical and emotional losses: we’re talking spiritual and supernatural. This is a tale of gods and magicians, religion and superstition, dangerous wagers and cunning deceptions. Street magician Jude Dubuisson has a talent for finding lost things. But it’s more than just a trick: it’s actual magic. So when the city’s Fortune god is murdered, Jude is the one tasked with finding the killer. But this is no straightforward whodunit. In his search, Jude pulls at threads that begin to unravel the fate of New Orleans itself, and in the process he finds out who he really is.
It took a while – quite a while, possibly longer than it should have – for the story to fully engage me. And part of that was down to the aforementioned sense that I was missing out on information somewhere. But as the story unfolds and grows in complexity it begins to pick up the pace, and I found that I was reading faster and faster the further I got into the book. The City of Lost Fortunes is a fantasy-adventure, and the pacing reflects this.
In terms of characters, things are a little bit hit and miss. Jude himself – a charming rogue – is intriguing enough to begin with, but his associate, Regal Sloan, who we are told was Jude’s ‘partner and closest friend in a life he’d left behind’ feels flimsily drawn. But whereas Jude gains solidity as the story moves on, Regal never feels fully fleshed out. This is also true of some of the other characters: some that feature lightly are more vividly sketched than some of the major players, with one or two missing out on the sense of gravitas or menace with which they could have been drawn.
New Orleans itself is also very much a character here, and Bryan Camp sets out to create a flavour of the city that he loves without it overwhelming the reader. He throws in all the things that one might expect: jazz, Mardi Gras, voodoo, gumbo, zombies. But because this is a place that he loves, he is able to stir in these ingredients with a light touch, and some sensitivity, as well as a large dose of myth and imagination, and a sprinkle of nerdy humour.
Throughout the book, various chapters begin with descriptions of events from different belief systems: the creation and destruction of the world, the birth and death of gods, the creation of angels, the passage of death, and the judgment of an afterlife. It is poetic, and lyrical, and it informs a story that contains elements from a range of different religions, an eclectic mix of gods and monsters. Fortune – as in fate and luck – features strongly, and each of the book’s seven parts is stamped with a specific and relevant tarot card.
The story itself resolves satisfactorily, and in more detail than I was expecting, although it does leave a few threads hanging, presumably in expectation of being explored in further Crescent City novels. Whilst it’s not quite on par with the works of Neil Gaiman and Ben Aaronovitch, to which it is being compared, it will certainly appeal to fans of their work. It brings its own twists to the magic and mythology of gods and cities, and I found its rich blend of ingredients enjoyable enough that I would seek out a sequel.
If you like contemporary supernatural fantasy with a fair amount of literary flair then this is definitely one for you.
The City of Lost Fortunes is now available from Titan Books, priced £8.99.