Today I am joining The Write Reads blog tour for The Carnival of Ash by Tom Beckerlegge.
Disclaimer – I received a copy in exchange for an honest review, all thoughts are my own.
Cadenza is the City of Words, a city run by poets, its skyline dominated by the steepled towers of its libraries, its heart beating to the stamp and thrum of the printing presses in the Printing Quarter.
Carlo Mazzoni, a young wordsmith arrives at the city gates intent on making his name as the bells ring out with the news of the death of the city’s poet-leader. Instead, he finds himself embroiled with the intrigues of a city in turmoil, the looming prospect of war with their rival Venice ever-present. A war that threatens not only to destroy Cadenza but remove it from history altogether…
The Carnival of Ash was an instant request for me, because the premise sounded absolutely amazing, and as a reader and writer the idea of a City of Words was everything I wanted. I am a little conflicted on how it was marketed – it was listed as historical fiction and sci-fi & fantasy, and the latter I think gives a false impression of what the book is, and I know a lot of people – myself included – were expecting it to be more fantastical in nature. Although I will admit that I was expecting fairly low fantasy based on the blurb, it still felt as though it fell short of that. Instead, it is more fantasy adjacent with being an alternative history, and while there were a few other elements here or there that hinted at fantasy, it was very much more like literary historical fiction, which dealt very heavily with politics. That is something I do enjoy when done right, so while I had expected a bit more in the way of fantasy, it wasn’t something I could hold against this book.
However, The Carnival of Ash is a book that has left me with incredibly mixed feelings. Firstly though I have to say that I absolutely loved the writing in this one, as soon as I started reading I knew that this was going to be one of my favourite aspects of the book and it was. It is very literary and verbose, and in some places perhaps a little too much, so if you are looking for lighter prose then maybe this one won’t be for you, but I loved it, and it felt very fitting for a city of words and poetry and was a lovely extra touch to the worldbuilding. I also liked how this book was split into sections or ‘cantos’, as it gave us different POVs into the city and the events unfolding, and it was an interesting way of casting different views and experiences on the worldbuilding, and it also meant that there were helpful pauses as you switched cantos – because this is a fairly dense book, with lots of threads, and this broke it up nicely.
The other aspect I really loved was the worldbuilding, and there were some great descriptions establishing the city setting – to the point where Cadenza really did feel like the main protagonist in and of itself. With the focus on society and politics, this was where the worldbuilding leaned, and it was fairly intricate – and it must be said that there is a lot to keep track of in this book. It is one reason why the slower pacing particularly earlier in the book works so well, as it takes the time to establish it, although it can feel a little heavy going – but it does very much pick up towards the end.
While, there is certainly a lot to love – especially if you weren’t caught expecting something different from this book being labelled fantasy, there were some things that didn’t work for me. Firstly, this book could do with trigger warnings, as it does get dark and deals with a lot of issues that some people would not want to read about – violence (including sexual), murder and torture, and some of it are quite graphic. Some scenes had me pausing and putting it down for a break. For the most part, I did not mind the darker aspects, and they felt real to the setting and the unfolding chaos. However, the part which I will admit I did struggle with was the representation of women in this book, and while I know and accept that the society is very patriarchal and I understand that historically it would have been part of the setting and situation, but as an alternative history, it feels like it could have been handled differently. Instead, there were a lot of the parts that involved female characters that left me uncomfortable, and it just feels that a different approach could have strengthened the book considerably.
I also found myself not heavily invested in the characters. I don’t mind the multiple POVs or the fact that most of the characters are largely unlikeable, but I just felt like I didn’t get that connection that I wanted. I did like that they were the product of the society, and how their roles in this literature-dominated society shaped them – but I found myself more interested in the stories they were part of, such as the idea of plagiarism being worse than murder than the characters themselves. I think part of it goes back to where I said that Cadenza does feel like a character to the point it overshadowed those living within it.
I have to admit that I’ve gone back and forth multiple times on my rating for this one because there are aspects that I absolutely adore – the prose alone kept me reading, although I realise that will be a personal taste – as there were places where it was a little much. And the worldbuilding was fantastic, and I would happily have just meandered around Cadenza, and it would have been great to have more cantos exploring different viewpoints of the city. But, on the other hand, there were some problems. Still, for the most part, I did enjoy The Carnival of Ash, and I think that if you go in with the right expectations (and forwarned of the darker nature), then this could be an interesting read for anyone who loves books about books/writing/literature and alternative history, and who wants to be swept away by some truly beautiful prose.
Tom Beckerlegge grew up in the northwest of England in a house filled with books. Writing as Tom Becker, he won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize with his debut novel; The Carnival of Ash is his first adult book. He lives in Enfield with his wife and young son.
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