ARC Book Review: THE CARNIVAL OF ASH by Tom Beckerlegge

I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. It has not affected my opinions.

Title in white on building outlines on black
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Age Range: Adult
Star Rating: 2 stars
Series: standalone

Synopsis:

Book cover for THE CARNIVAL OF ASH: title on black on colourful ribbons above a city scape on black

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…

Synopsis taken from Goodreads. Add to your shelves here.


Review:

This is a “marmite book” I think, either you’ll love the style or you’ll hate it. Unfortunately, I did not like the style at all.

The twelve sections of the book are told from a different character’s perspective, save for the last, which is a new character narrating every scene. Some are returning POVs, a lot of them are new. These narrating characters might turn up as a background character in another section, if you’re lucky. Most of the time, they don’t really make an impression on the previous or following sections at all. For example, the only other two times you see the first narrator is as a co-conspirator in a “traditional kidnapping” at the midway point, and then as a single scene narrator at the end.

That is a style that I don’t click well with, because the characters felt so separate, linked by the city rather than plot, goals, or actions. It made the book feel like a series of vignettes of people’s lives as the city fell apart, rather than a single cohesive story. After a while, I stopped even trying to care about the characters because I knew they were unlikely to come back again, and that lack of care undercut the book’s ability to draw me in.

The vignettes also failed to contain tension for me, and not just because I didn’t care. On the rare occasion the character narrating had a goal, they rarely achieved it or made progress towards it. They sort of just floated along. I can best sum the sections up as:

  1. A wannabe poet nobleman who’s been ridiculed thinks his life is over and makes melodramatic attempts but gets talked down each time. Ends up becoming a gravedigger.
  2. An ink maid (a writer of erotic letters) loses interest in her job and keeps meeting a strange (never identified) man who wants to watch her write.
  3. A poet gets annoyed and writes a scathing, denouncing poem but is thwarted by his underling.
  4. The head of the city sees odd messages that unnerve him.
  5. Some guy searches for lost books.
  6. There’s a murder to be solved (this is the only section that has a goal that’s achieved!)
  7. A “traditional” kidnapping goes wrong.
  8. A scholar suffers the vengeance of his patron.
  9. ??? Really not sure what happened here (see below.) I think someone’s wandering around miserably and happens to overhear plotting???
  10. A guy is employed to lay siege to a tower where a wife has taken refuge and is refusing to even speak with her husband.
  11. A bunch of imprisoned nuns rewriting history die off, haunted house style.
  12. Everything goes to chaos.

These stories didn’t feel linked, didn’t feel cohesive, and half the time I couldn’t work out what “the point” of them where, how they were impacting the overall city (which I figure was meant to be the focus on the book.) It was falling apart around them, but half the time, the characters and their stories had no impact on that. Only really 4, 9, and 12 really impacted on the city.

Most of the book was told in third person past tense, but then section 5 and 9 were told in first past and first present respectively. Not only was that very jarring (and in section 5, I don’t think I ever learnt the character’s name, which made it hard to link him in to the rest) but the section 9 style was very confusing.

It was full of what might have been flashbacks or maybe hallucinations, jumping between paragraphs describing Venice and a feast that felt off and the present day moping of a man unable to write as others plotted around him. By not being able to work out when what I was reading happened, if it did at all, I couldn’t follow the section.

The setting, though, was interesting. It’s set in a fake Italian town, probably sometime in the Renaissance based on people being referred to as “must reads.” The fact it’s set in a fake town obsessed with words and is about its rise and fall (and also how it’s being marketed) is the only reason I’m calling it historical fantasy. There isn’t any magic at all, but it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be a work of historical fiction imagining what lives could really have been like.

Overall, this is simply a book where the style did not work for me.

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