Orleans by Sherri L. Smith (Putnam Juvenile; 336 pages; $17.99).
Katrina, Isaiah, Lorenzo, Olga, Laura, Paloma, and Jesus are the names of a series of hurricanes that hit the New Orleans area from 2005 to 2019, killing thousands and thousands of people, flooding the city, and eventually giving rise to the Delta Fever. No, this is not a prediction of the future but the terrifying plot of Sherri L. Smith’s young adult dystopian novel Orleans. Orleans is speculative fiction that disturbs, fascinates, and leaves us with much to ponder.
Smith sets her story in 2056 Orleans, no longer New Orleans, but a virtually unrecognizable world characterized by devastation, lawlessness, disease, death, and obstructed by a high wall. The remnants of the Big Easy are cut off from the rest of the United States, and they are not alone.
In 2020, FEMA quarantined any state affected by the Delta Fever. In 2025, the United States formally withdrew its governance from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, permanently altering the nation’s landscape and sending the economy into a tailspin. The United States is now called the Outer States.
You guessed it, Toto. We aren’t in the New Orleans as we know it. Nor are in the America as we know it today.
Smith stakes out new territory in this story. Not only is Orleans an original tale it’s also a courageous one. And, for Smith, it is personal: Her mother was among those affected by Katrina. Chilling and wholly plausible, Smith immerses readers deep inside Orleans, and her characters matter deeply to us.
Using a dual narrative format, Smith narrates her tale from the perspective of her two protagonists: Fen de la Guerre and Daniel Weaver.
Fen, a teenage girl with a mysterious past, finds her world irrevocably altered when her mentor, Lydia, dies while giving birth. Before Lydia dies, she entrusts her child to Fen’s care.
In Orleans, race no longer matters. “Tribe is life,” and one’s blood type determines his or her tribe. Fen is an O-Positive, or “OP.” The baby is an O-Neg, which is problematic.
Delta Fever affects people in different ways according to blood type. Those with AB blood type suffer the worst from the virus. “O types don’t be needing transfusions like ABs do. The Fever be in us, but it ain’t eating O blood up from the inside like it do other types.”
ABs hunt down people with O blood type, especially O negative. A transfusion using O blood, the universal donor, allows a person with AB to temporarily replenish his supply of red blood cells.
The ABs’ need for blood is eerily similar to that of vampires. Fen struggles to get the baby to a safe place, far away from Orleans, before the ABs hunt down them both. As her name suggests, Fen de la Guerre is a fighter.
Daniel is a researcher and scientist from the Outer States whose brother, Charlie, contracted Delta Fever and died “before his eleventh birthday.” His brother’s death compelled Daniel to work to find a potential cure for the fever.
He bioengineers “a new virus with one purpose—to attack Delta Fever in the bloodstream.” Daniel creates an “even deadlier strain of the disease.” Daniel’s virus is a weapon, “a time bomb” that only kills those with the Delta Fever, which includes “every inhabitant of the Delta Coast.”
Through Daniel, Smith shows us what life is like in the former United States, and the picture he paints is far from pretty. The problems of the Outer States, though, pale in comparison to what happens in Orleans. The Big Easy has some big problems, as you have probably already ascertained.
When Fen and Daniel meet, the real fun begins. Fen and Daniel strike a bargain and navigate the bayous and menacing thoroughfares of Orleans together. Smith takes readers on a wild ride as we accompany Fen and Daniel throughout the dangerous world of Orleans.
There is such authenticity within the pages of Orleans. Fen speaks in dialect, using “be” in place of “am” and “are.” For example, “We be near the Market,” Smith writes, “where the old levee used to be, across from St. Louis Cathedral.” This may be jarring for some, at least initially, but one quickly becomes accustomed to Fen’s distinctive voice. Many people in New Orleans and in the bayous (and elsewhere in the US) use this kind of discourse today.
If you’ve ever traveled to New Orleans, there are certain landmarks that are permanently fixed in your memory: the Superdome, the French Market, the Ursuline convent, and St. Louis Cathedral, just to name a few. These all figure prominently in the story. As does some old Mardi Gras and Catholic traditions. The most fascinating of which is a ritual Orleanians adhere to on November 1, All Saints’ Day, and the last day of hurricane season, when all tribes come together on horseback wearing old Mardi Gras apparel to disguise their identities.
The participants “wheel around in a circle at the widest point of the road and thrust they torches toward the center of the ring, moving to a trot as the ring shift shape and turn into a spiral ‘stead of a sphere.” They “be like a hurricane, swirling and swirling, the smallest rider in the center at the eye.” Then, the chanting begins, over and over, louder and louder: “Katrina, Isaiah, Lorenzo. Olga, Laura, Paloma…Jesus, Jesus, Hay-SEUS!”
As the riders go off in every direction, they move faster and faster. As they disperse, one rider plays an old tune, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The ceremony’s observers continue to celebrate November 1, because they still live in Orleans, and the ritual is to honor and remember what Orleans used to be. This is just one of the many ways in which Smith makes Orleans intriguing and new. No matter how many young adult books you have read, Orleans is nothing like them.
In Orleans, Smith creates a world like no other—bold, harrowing, and impossible to forget. This young adult story is a nail-biter that will keep you up well past your bedtime, but the pay-off is well worth the loss of sleep.