The Carnival of Ash by Tom Beckerlegge
Rebellion Publishing (Solaris), eBook, £7.99
Reviewed by Robin C.M. Duncan
The Carnival of Ash is Tom Beckerlegge’s first adult novel. However, the signposts to this dark city were there for all to see in the author’s back catalogue. Writing as Tom Becker, TB has—since 2007—published the novels Dark Room, The Traitors, Afterwalkers, and While the Others Sleep, plus five novels in his Darkside series for teens set in “a hidden [London] borough of monsters and mayhem, founded by Jack the Ripper”. So, be advised, here be darkness.
And surely no one familiar with the author’s work would be surprised to find that The Carnival of Ash is indeed a dark affair. However, there is quite a range of views from ARC and early readers, many complaining that the representation of the novel in its blurb is misleading. There might be something to this. For one thing, there is nothing literally ‘fantastical’ about this story. Alt history seems to be the best categorisation (if we must), although it would be hard to disagree if someone suggested it be filed under Grimdark. This story often is grim and, in places, could barely be darker without verging into horror. But there is way more to this book than darkness.
The synopsis and the opening promise the reader a journey through the streets of a city where words are power, language is currency, and books are treasures to be venerated, hoarded, bought, borrowed and stolen, where poets spend most of their time bestriding the world like colossi and stabbing each other in the back. This story delivers all that and more: intrigue upon mystery upon Machiavellian machination; the prose is at turns as delicate, intricate, bold and daring as the plotting. Frequently surprising, always lyrical, even when the subject matter is challenging: this is a novel to be treasured.
It is a wonderfully grown-up story, peopled with a chiaroscuro of characters you will love, revile, delight in, and despise, and whose company you will crave. Yes, each of the twelve cantos (effectively long episodes) tends to feature a different point-of-view and story arc, but this is, after all, the tale of a place, not any one character (despite what the blurb tends to imply). While its denizens are shaped with satisfying depth and detail, they also are the medium the author uses to describe the mysterious, murky city that lies at the book’s centre. So, I would urge you to push past any feeling that the plot is fragmented. Enjoy each canto for itself and glory in the marvellous municipal treasure that is Cadenza.
At the risk of (very unwisely) opening a debate about what adults should and should not be prepared for when opening an adult novel, it is true that there are some quite explicit scenes here: yes, torture, mutilation, sex, but that is rather the point. Cadenza has an underbelly like any great metropolis. For what city can say it is made only of light? Gondor? Gormenghast? King’s Landing? Caemlyn? Dickens’ London, or his Paris?
This is a book unlike any other I have read. Anyone who loves language in all its lustrous and lyrical majesty, raise a glass of grappa (vile stuff, maybe Chianti) to Signor Beckerlegge, for he has fashioned a passionate love letter to the written word. Here is the discovery that language is the true magic.