The Carnival of Ash by Tom Beckerlegge
Publication Date: March 15th, 2022
Hardcover. 528 pages.
About The Carnival of Ash:
"An extravagant, lyrical fantasy about a city of poets and librarians. A city that never was.
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…"
The Carnival of Ash has proven to be a particularly difficult review to write, solely because I have a hard time capturing exactly what this book is and how to describe it in a way that makes sense. If you’ve seen it on Goodreads, you’ll have likely seen that it has pretty low ratings at the moment, and I really think that’s because it’s being marketed in a way that doesn’t really fit what it is. I also want to note that there are a variety of content warnings for this book, including many different types of violence.
I most often see The Carnival of Ash classified as and included with the fantasy genre, and although I can sort of understand why, I think it reads much more like a sort of alternate historical fiction with more of a fantasy atmosphere than having actual magic or major fantasy elements. There are definitely elements of the unknown at work in this story, but if you’re looking for overt fantasy and magic systems, this is not going to be what you’re looking for.
This is also not one continuous story following one character or a specific group of characters, but reads more like a series of vignettes about characters within the city of Cadenza. It sort of works like this: we read the first chapter, which is about a character named Carlo Mazzoni, and then the next chapter follows a character that we met somewhere in the first chapter; and so on and so forth with each chapter following someone new, but somewhat familiar. I was a little disappointed when I first discovered this because there were some characters that I really liked in the first portion of the novel and it was a bummer not to follow them again, but for some reason this book really worked for me and I ended up really loving getting to follow various characters throughout this city.
The Carnival of Ash does progress in a linear timeline, so each character you follow continues on the story from a different perspective and role, but in line with events that happened in the previous section, and I thought it was really entertaining and insightful to read from so many varied perspectives that really helped me get a better understanding and view of this city and everything it stood for.
Beckerlegge’s writing is absolutely lush and exquisitely crafted, and I loved the effortless, poetic manner in which this story flowed. Since the story focuses on some poets and writers, I really appreciated that his writing matched this focus and really allowed me, as a reader, to lose myself in this writing and world and really get to know each and every character. The city itself is written to be just as much a character as every character, and I think Beckerlegge captured that aspect perfectly as well.
I realize in writing his review I’ve talked a lot about the format and style of this story, but not as much about the content, and that’s because it’s difficult to condense each character’s individual story into one more cohesive summary, and I think it would do a disservice to the story to attempt to do so. This may seem like individual stories at times, but they all work together to create a much bigger and compelling story that really took my breath away to work my way through. The starting character, Carlo Mazzoni, is desperate to become a successful and lauded poet wants nothing more than to be worthy of the great poets he is inspired by, and I think that desire for more and ambition to be more than you are is a great indicator of what to expect from this book and its characters who are always exploring more in this world, but often being met with far less and seeing dreams go up in smoke at times, with nothing left but ash in the end.
Overall, I’ve given The Carnival of Ash 4.5 stars! I hope I haven’t oversold this book because I know it’s not going to be one for everyone, but from my own personal experience and enjoyment, I have to say that this book was a huge hit for me and I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to read it before seeing more of the negative reviews that might have put me off.
*I received a copy of The Carnival of Ash courtesy of the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*