DISCLAIMER: THE WRITE READS PROVIDED ME A DIGITAL and physical COPY OF THE NOVEL The carnival of ash BY tom beckerlegge IN EXCHANGE FOR AN HONEST REVIEW.
Genre: Adult Fantasy (Update: Adult Literary Alternative History is more accurate)
Length: 528 Pages
Publishing: 15th March 2022
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…
About the Author
Tom Beckerlegge grew up in the northwest of England in a house filled with books. Writing as Tom Becker, he won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize with his debut novel; The Carnival of Ash is his first adult book. He lives in Enfield with his wife and young son.
My Thoughts on The Carnival of Ash
A book usually finds its way on our tabletops, Kindles, iPads and marks its territory with the very first chapter. The Carnival of Ash announced its arrival and demanded my attention when my family and I were stuck in traffic. I remember finding myself laughing at Carlo and Ercole’s first interaction and thinking, this might be the beginning of a good book, and it didn’t disappoint.
How beautiful would it be to actually have a city dedicated to literature and what it stood (or stands) for? I marveled at how I could easily get lost in the streets of Cadenza following the characters that lived there. In my mind, I could picture librarians, scholars, and poets busy in the Accademia, reading, immersed in their studies while self-proclaimed writers, poets, and ink maids loitered the streets.
But all words have their underbellies. It was easy for me to imagine Vittoria’s suffocating tower, Palazzo Nero’s east wing, and the horrifying Lazaretto. I even had to cover my nose when Lorenzo and Borso were talking in the sewers.
Apart from the setting, the politics in The Carnival of Ash is fascinating perhaps because of how closely it represents modern politics but with a twist. Instead of artillery, politicians and their loyal followers set out to compete by means of their best works. The more popular a poetry is, the more influential the author, and bigger the patron. The motivation is the same, however- to reduce their opponents to smithereens.
The exaggeration of the characters’ descriptions and consequent demise was not unintended. In fact, the drama surrounding them was carefully crafted and, dare I say, to be expected since they live in the City of Words— such fitting place where every word has a profound meaning. Once you reach that part where Carlo reveals why he wants to be buried alive, let me know if my want to hit Carlo with a book was justified.
The characters focused in the novel, those whose backstories were carefully fleshed out, represent different statures in society. There’s Carlo who comes to Cadenza as an optimistic amateur writer, Vittoria, a celebrated ink maid, who has become desensitized by the amorous letters she writes, Raffaele, the clever plagiarist who used to run errands for a more renowned poet, and Cosimo Petrucci, the reluctant Artifex, the ruler of the city , who has his own scandalous secrets.
And then there’s Ercole, the gravedigger. Even in the beginning, I was already rooting for him as he was wise. His occupation left him with few opportunities. He wades amongst the authors, poets, librarians, and scholars in the city yet still he doesn’t belong in their circle. *Spoiler Alert!* How poetic is it that he survives the Salamanders and The Carnival of Ash, while Cadenza’s great poets, those who used to rule the city, suffered the worst?
I would love to revisit the novel to write more about the binary opposites of the characters but as in many of my projects, the idea is more tantalizing than the actual process. lol
The Structure and Writing Style
The structure of the novel is one of its endearing qualities. Each chapter is called a canto – a word associated with poems and their sections (a City of Words has a number of poets, of course)- and each canto has a number of subchapters. What makes this whole structure interesting is it doesn’t just tell the story in the usual chronological or linear way but may hint that two or three events are happening at the same time, affecting each other. The readers lose sight of some characters from the previous canto but their exploits are reported in or affecting the current one. As a reader, I have to be proactively involved in putting the pieces together.
I confess myself a fan of the literary devices used in the novel. Some of my favorite lines aren’t even that significant or philosophical:
- His skull was filled with broken glass, his mouth stuffed with stale cloth.
- …Vittoria’s bell tower dramatically announced itself…
- …the dank footnotes of the city…
It’s been a while since I read something so excellent that made me want to write a novel again and read more from the writer and the publisher. There is nothing else to say but give this book a 5-star rating– a rare one from me but it does deserve it.