What a ride! I am always amazed when an author manages to accomplish in a novella what others fail to do in a big, chunky novel. P. Djèlí Clark is definitely one to watch (if you’ve somehow missed him until now) and I can’t wait to gobble up whatever he decides to write next. I hear there’s a full length novel in the Djinn universe coming up…
by P. Djèlí Clark
Published: Tordotcom, 2020
eBook: 192 pages
My rating: 8.5/10
Opening line: You ever seen a Klan march?
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.
I don’t even know where to start gushing about this book because it was so damn good! From the very first chapter I knew I would love it but then it kept getting better and better.
We follow a group of three women who hunt monsters. Maryse, our protagonist, Sadie (my favorite) and Chef – three badass Black women doing their best to rid the world of the monsters that invade it. The premise of the book and one of the coolest ideas ever is that the members of the Ku Klux Klan aren’t exactly all human. You wait long enough, and some of them start turning into what our heroines call Ku Kluxes – these monsters with the pointy heads need to be killed and that’s what Maryse and her friends do. But something big seems to be coming and it has to do with the planned showing of The Birth of a Nation on Stone Mountain…
I want to tell you as little about the plot as possible, not because there are many huge twists but simply because this novella is so well crafted that I think you should experience it for yourself in all its glory. But I can tell you why it worked so well for me, starting with the characters. In the very first chapter, Clark introduces us to our protagonist Maryse and her two friends Sadie and Chef while they’re on a job, and over the course of just those few pages, they each became real people with histories and hopes and dreams. It’s something that many full-length novels don’t manage to do in 500 pages and Clark just gives us a handful of lines, some banter, and – wham! – we have three women who are interesting and amazing and whom we immediately root for. I have a special soft spot for Sadie and her gun, Winnie. She is loud-mouthed and direct, loyal and funny, and I just wanted to be friends with her.
I may be a character focused reader but there’s plenty for people who enjoy a killer plot. Not only do Maryse and her friends hunt monsters which leads to crazy cool action sequences, but there’s a lot of world building going on as well. Again, no spoilers, but Maryse can summon a sword out of thin air (how cool is that?) and sort of dreamwalks into another world where she talks to three Aunties who help her along the way. We also get a sort of magic system when it comes to the Ku Kluxes and how the evolve (if you want to call it that) plus some folklore interwoven with science fictional ideas. It’s really awesome, you guys!
Another intriguing aspect of this book is, of course, the Ring Shouts. I had no idea what a ring shout even was before I picked this up but even without looking it up, you get the idea and the meaning behind it. These shouts are incorporated into the story, not just as window dressing or a world building vehicle, but as something important to the plot. Music plays a big role in general and I loved how the scenes with shouts were also used as a chance to give the side characters more depth. While Maryse is the character we follow most closely, this being a first person narrative, the other characters were all fleshed out, even if they only show up a few times and don’t get to say much. Clark paints a picture of an entire community, a close-knit group, a found family. I’m a sucker for found families, especially when they are done so well.
What else makes this book so great? Well, there’s the language. Almost all the major characters are Black, the story takes place in 1920, and the language reflects all of that. I could totally hear Sadie’s voice in my head and while I had to read Nana Jean’s lines several times to make sure I understood (English being my second language does not exactly make it easier to read her dialect) but I wouldn’t have changed a thing about it. The narration adds atmosphere to the story and gets us closer to Maryse and the demons she carries with her.
And she’s got some demons to deal with… Finding out just what exactly happened in Maryse’s past and led her to become a sword-fighting monster huntress was just another layer to an already great story. It’s clear from the start that she was orphaned a while ago and dealing with her grief makes her just as much who she is as the friendships she’s found along the way.
Most of all, I am impressed with how much Clark managed to put into this novella without ever making it feel overloaded. There’s explorations of trauma, racism, purpose, and friendship. But it’s also a great fantasy story with cool monsters and action and a magic system. And to top it all of, it taught me things about the real world, things about history I didn’t know much about. I’m no editor and no writer, but I’ll be damned if this isn’t a perfect example for a novella done right. Everything you could hope for is right there, it’s all delivered beautifully, and it leaves a lasting impression. This is definitely going on my favorites of the year list an onto next year’s Hugo ballot!
MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Damn excellent!