A gripping first novel that limns the life of African-American Marie Laveau, the legendary Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, with all the brooding intensity and latent menace of a summer's night on a lonely bayou. Assembling scattered references to Laveau in Creole folklore, Rhodes not only tells a riveting story but creates a panoramic portrait of New Orleans life in the early 1800's. Like a Dickensian London, the city where Marie confronts her destiny is a vibrant place teeming with Creoles, slaves, free blacks, aristo descendants of the French and Spanish settlers, and Yankees. Marie is a direct descendant of Membe, who, instructed by Damballah, the great snake god, became a slave so that she could mother the god's lost children in America. As Marie lies dying, an old woman revered for her good deeds, she tells her story to lifelong admirer Louis Delavier. Beginning in the middle--since ``the middle is the beginning of everything. Everything spirals from the center. Lies, pain, and loss haunt the future as well as the past''--she describes how she deliberately let her python, with whom she shared the spirit of Damballah, murder John--her Svengali, her nemesis. She then goes on to recall the happiest years of her life--her childhood with grandmother Marie in rural TechÇ, where on her tenth birthday she not only saw visions but had a frightening encounter with a man who ``smelled of ash and withered leaves.'' The man is John, who, sold into slavery, is interested in voodoo only for his own ends. He later seduces young Marie, exploits her visionary gifts, and ruthlessly destroys all those who thwart him. Marie's murder of John alienates her from her daughter, but--reconciling her Catholic upbringing with voodoo, an affirmative power when properly handled--she becomes a noted healer. All the ingredients of a bewitching read--atmosphere, adventure, mystery, and romance--as well as enough intellectual substance to give it a satisfying heft.