This book is off the scale magnificent. It’s taken me about ten weeks to feel ready to even try and talk about how much it blew me away, and even now I can feel myself getting overwhelmed by the prospect of trying to do it justice. RING SHOUT tells the story of Maryse Boudreaux, a young black woman who runs bootleg whiskey through prohibition Georgia with her pals Sadie and Chef, respectively a foul-mouthed sharpshooter and veteran WWI Harlem Hellfighter. Oh, and she also fights evil monsters called ‘Ku Kluxes’ with a magic sword that she summons from another dimension. Now if you’re anything like me that right there is enough for you to abandon this review right away to go buy a copy of this book (you should totally do that by the way – every second you’re reading this review is another second you’re not reading RING SHOUT) but there’s so much more to talk about and I need to release the pressure valve cos I feel like my chest has been about to explode with adoration ever since I closed that final page.
Okay okay okay, I can feel myself getting over-excited and this has the potential to become an incoherent stream-of-consciousness squee-fest, so I’m gonna do my best to rein myself in and speak with poise and grace about what makes this book so damn incredible. First off, there’s the over-arching concept of the book. D. W. Griffith was a real life film director who made a notoriously vile, racist film called Birth Of A Nation in 1915; Clark reimagines him here as a sorcerer, and his film a spell that draws power from the racist hatred that is so prevalent in early 20th century America (and let’s be real, in modern day America too). The Klan are the footsoldiers of this movement and have a plan to unleash Hell on Earth. What I love about this concept is that this spell isn’t the cause of the racism portrayed in the book, as can often be the case in some SFF books where the social evil is represented as the result of some outside intervention. In this case it simply feeds on the power of the bigotry that already exists. It doesn’t absolve people of responsibility for their racism. I don’t want to say too much more about this aspect of the story because it’s so tied in with plot development, but trust me when I say that Clark uses this concept and takes it to a truly dark and horrifying conclusion that kept me transfixed from beginning to end.
As a work of art RING SHOUT is superb in every way, but as a story it’s the characters that bring it to life. Maryse is a hero that I just gelled with instantly. She’s a magic-sword-wielding monster hunter who runs bootleg whiskey for eff’s sake, but she’s also a righteous hero and a complicated person who lives, loves and makes mistakes. I loved her comrade-in-arms Chef, a veteran of The Great War whose prized possession is a knife she took from a slain German soldier. The opening chapter takes place in a cotton warehouse and it’s this setting, combined with the object of Chef’s knife, that serves as a poignant reminder that throughout the story that follows, with all its racism and violence against Black people, that it was Black folks who built America and Black folks who also fought and died to defend it. Sadie the sharpshooter is wonderful too. Every single one of Clark’s characters are incredibly well-developed, fully-realised people with so many facets to their personality (a remarkable achievement in the limited word count of a novella by the way) and not one of them fits the caricature of how women (and young Black women in particular) are often represented in stereotypical media portrayals, but I think Sadie, above all, is the best representation of this. She swears, she flirts and she’s a crack shot with a rifle. There’s a great scene where she, Maryse and Chef are driving through town and see a poster for Griffith’s film; Sadie leans out the car window to hurl abuse at it and Maryse’s reaction is simply ‘Can’t say I blame her’. This scene in particular hit me hard because there’s always that argument that’s brought up whenever we talk about historic racism, that ‘times were just different back then, people thought racism was more acceptable’, when what they really mean is white people thought it was acceptable. And this just lays bare who we centre whenever we discuss these things because – shock, horror – there never was a time when Black folks thought racism was acceptable.
As a quick aside, when I started reading P. Djèlí Clark’s books, I wasn’t prepared for the level of dark horror that he incorporates into his fantasy. There’s definite Lovecraftian vibes to his short story A Dead Djinn in Cairo and some quite chilling horror in his associated novella The Haunting of Tram Car 015. His books are often billed as ‘dark fantasy’, and while that’s definitely true, I don’t think it captures the level of horror that’s present in his stories. RING SHOUT takes that to the next level; genres are fickle things, but if you’re going into this thinking it’s just dark fantasy, be aware that horror is absolutely front and centre in this book. Also, since I mentioned Lovecraft, that guy can get fucked but he also wrote some existentially terrifying stories. Gore horror and jump scares can get in the bin, that’s the sort of horror I love; the stuff that leaves you questioning your place in the universe, how you exist and relate to powerful forces you have no control over as an individual. P. Djèlí Clark is the anti-Lovecraft, but also the antidote to Lovecraft because he takes the best of that kind of storytelling and energises it with much more intelligence and talent while challenging the racism that overshadows Lovecraft’s legacy.
As a writer, Clark is exceptional. His prose is crisp and evocative, conjuring up images in your head that draw you so completely into the world of his story in a way that makes everything feel that much more real and visceral. A lot of the time in my reviews I talk about plot, setting, character and themes separately, but I honestly have a hard time doing that here because Clark is a master of having all these elements interplay so gracefully that it’s difficult to untangle them and almost feels like a disservice to do so. While each element on its own is incredibly well done, they weave together into a beautiful tapestry that’s somehow greater than the sum of its parts.
I honestly think P. Djèlí Clark is a genius and, simply put, one of the greatest writers alive right now. He makes my chest swell and bones vibrate in awe at his talent. There’s actually a lot more I want to discuss about RING SHOUT, particularly the politics represented in the book, from Marcus Garvey to the Bolshevik Revolution, because there’s a lot to pick apart and is another aspect of Clark’s storytelling where his intelligence looms large and his understanding of the relations between race, economics and political movements is abundantly clear. This review doesn’t do justice to just how much of a groundbreaking author he is. Long story short, put RING SHOUT at the top of your reading list, I promise you it will be one of the best books you read this year.
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