“They say God is good all the time. Seem he also likes irony.”―
P. Djèlí Clark, Ring Shout
Nebula, Locus, and Alex Award-winner P. Djèlí Clark returns with Ring Shout, a dark fantasy historical novella that gives a supernatural twist to the Ku Klux Klan’s reign of terror.
D. W. Griffith is a sorcerer, and The Birth of a Nation is a spell that drew upon the darkest thoughts and wishes from the heart of America. Now, rising in power and prominence, the Klan has a plot to unleash Hell on Earth.
Luckily, Maryse Boudreaux has a magic sword and a head full of tales. When she’s not running bootleg whiskey through Prohibition Georgia, she’s fighting monsters she calls “Ku Kluxes.” She’s damn good at it, too. But to confront this ongoing evil, she must journey between worlds to face nightmares made flesh–and her own demons. Together with a foul-mouthed sharpshooter and a Harlem Hellfighter, Maryse sets out to save a world from the hate that would consume it.
Ring Shout, by thrice nominated nebula award author P. Djèlí Clark will win a Hugo or a Nebula and maybe just both for this story. I do not say this lightly as there have been a plethora of gorgeous work, both indie and traditionally published, that have been stellar. We are talking body and soul moving type work, but nothing I have read this year holds a candle to this. If you are not familiar with Clark’s other books, let me elucidate you and baptize you in the world of his short story and novellas.
Firstly, The Black God’s Drums written in a steampunkesque New Orleans featuring a Moxy filled young teen, African gods, a kidnapped Haitian scientist, and a mysterious weapon he calls The Black God’s Drums. When you read this story, you can practically feel the dark cobblestones under your feet, the heady moist air of New Orleans, feel the energy from sweaty dancing, and the power of a place steeped in lore. New Orleans is a special place, but the way Clark describes it is another world fueled by magic.
“As you know, we specialize in that thing you call hate. To your kind, it’s just a feeling. A bit of rage behind the eyes.”
The second book in his catalog is The Haunting of Tram Car 015. Where Clark takes on an alternative Cairo where humans live and work with otherworldly beings. While The Black Gods Drums beats with the heart of New Orleans, Clark takes you to Cairo and feeds you passion, silks, smells, and hot sand. Where New Orleans is dark and humid, Cairo is bright and dusty.
The last story in his catalog is that of A Dead Djinn in Cairo. This also takes place in Cairo but has a slightly different feel. It is power, hot sand, history, and bright light, but the story is, at its core, a police procedural. It has a very sam spade type feel.
Why the history lesson on his other books?
So I can help to describe the genius loci of the worlds he creates. The spirit of the place that embodies the culture, architecture, history, and people all combined make a place original. Its own special unique thing that can not be duplicated. Clark is such a good writer that he has created a genuine genius loci in Ring Shout. Halfway through the story, I was looking for a door, a window, anything that could let me into this world. There is no way that it wasn’t real.
The story can be summed up that an evil sorcerer has infiltrated some hardened American hearts with a movie The Birth of a Nation. Those people become Klan members and physically change to be the embodiment of the hate they have. They become demons, or as they are known in the story as Ku Klux. Monsters from hell. This sorcerer is trying to open the door to literal hell and devour the souls of Earth’s people.
Enter Maryse, a female African-American bootlegger from Macon, Georgia that hunts these racist demons. She carries a magical sword infused with the pain of dead slaves. Their voices sing to her and fuel the rage that allows her to manifest the sword and the will to face the Ku Klux. She is a flawed hero in every sense of the word. She has a broken past that haunts her, and she struggles with her choices. But my god, is she this stories champion. I don’t think I have ever read a female hero as well written as her.
Aside from that short summation, I can’t tell you more of the plot. I would ruin it. This is a novella, and Clark uses few selected words when describing his worlds. Everything is purposeful, and there is not a lot of room to dance around the events described in the book.
Clark writes terrifyingly fantastic body horror in this story. The Ku Klux is frightening in many ways. First, and most obvious, is what they represent. In its most visceral form, racism is pure hate, and that hate has given rise to these creatures that feed on hate. Iconographically, the white hood is frightening in what it represents historically. And the transformation of creatures you are already scared of because of what they represent goes a step further in becoming an actual demon. Clark took fear on many levels, and it works so well. It is very Lovecraftian.
I loved that I could tell some of the influences that Clark has had when writing this. You do not often come across writers that have been influenced by A Wrinkle in Time and Madeline L’Engle. But I felt it in the three Aunties can be likened to Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which. Or maybe a nod to the Greek Moirai. These wise Aunties guide Maryse, but they are full of secrets and know more then they are letting on.
Clark is one of the best authors I have ever read, and he is undoubtedly one of the greatest authors alive. I kid you not; if Clark described what fire was in a book of his, I would expect the pages to start to char and blacken as they internalize the prose he writes. To say this is good would be an understatement. All I can say is that Ring Shout should be studied in school for future generations to marvel and learn from.
I just witnessed the birth of a new American classic, and I stand in awe.
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