In 2011, Post-Katrina New Orleans is a place haunted by the hurricane’s destruction. Its a city that is hoping to survive the rebuilding of its present long enough to ensure that it has a future. Street magician Jude Dubuisson is likewise burdened by his past and by the consequences of the storm because he has a secret: the magical ability to find lost things, a gift passed down to him by the father he has never known—a father who just happens to be a god. When the debt Jude owes to a fortune deity gets called in, he finds himself sitting in on a poker game with the gods of New Orleans, who are playing for the heart and soul of the city itself.
The New Orleans of Bryan Camp’s dark fantasy novel The City of Lost Fortunes owes a great debt to Neil Gaiman, Tim Powers, and Jim Butcher. It is a city populated by gods and monsters hiding from the humans in plain sight while vying for control of the city. The specter of loss hangs over the novel and the idea that hurricane Katrina destroyed a vital essence of the city is a powerful theme of the book. Jude has shut himself away after Katrina, feeling an overwhelming loss that his gift heightened to a painful degree. The poker game in The City of Lost Fortunes isn’t a simple poker game. The players are using Tarot cards trying to win the best – or worst – possible fate based on the cards in hand. Jude is betting on a hand that hasn’t been completely revealed yet because he can determine how the cards may fall based on his actions. He comes to realize that the fate he creates will determine if he has the winning hand and can win back his life. While Jude is playing the game he meets a number of gods and monsters, notably Papa Legba, the Voodoo god, and Sal, a shape-shifter that helps souls cross in to the afterlife. However it’s Jude’s relationship with two women, Regal – his former apprentice, and Renee – a shop clerk, that really shapes who Jade becomes in ways that are too unexpected to reveal.
While The City of Lost Fortunes is reminiscent of other fantasy authors, it’s the unexpected turns that the story takes that make it unique and worthy of being included alongside The Dresden Files and American Gods. A card game in which the destiny of a city hangs in the balance was also the theme of Tim Power’s novel Last Call, in which a gambler found himself in a battle to be the next Fisher King of the West in Las Vegas. But the game is really just the MacGuffin to get the action going. Just when you think the story is going to be a mystery procedural it becomes something else entirely and our hero is forced to examine the choices he has made, the person he is, and who he wants to become.
Gender roles and racial identity are explored as well. Not only is Jude a demigod, he’s also Creole, and it is mentioned in passing that he is bisexual, a fact that simply IS with no commentary around it. He’s also a Trickster and when cunning doesn’t get the job done he is more than happy to open up a can of whup-ass and cast some devastating spells on his enemies. There are a lot of noir elements in the novel as well with a rising body count, a “one last job” angle, and sense that Jude is in way over his head with no way out.
The City of Lost Fortunes is intended to be the first of a series but this novel is almost entirely self contained. Not every question is answered but the set up for the next novel allows it to go anywhere in future installments. This is one of the more exciting debut series I’ve read in some time, if you are a fan of any of the other books or writers I mentioned I strongly recommend you add The City of Lost Fortunes to the list.