The Carnival of Ash (Tom Beckerlegge) – Book Review

The Carnival of Ash is marketed as a fantasy book; a story set within an alternate history in a fictional city where the crafted word rules supreme. Cadenza is a city filled with giant libraries, where hundreds of printing presses work around the clock, churning out work, and where poets and creators control the life of the citizens. However, the book seems to have been woefully mis-sold, leading to a jarring reading experience.

The Carnival of Ash begins following Carlo Mazzoni, a young poet who has travelled to Cadenza in order to show off his epic poem and to find fame. Unfortunately, he came to the city at the worst possible time, as the leader, Artifex Tommaso Cellini, has died suddenly. Now the city is in turmoil, and Carlo discovers secrets about his family history that not only disturb him, but makes it look like he may be involved in Cellini’s death.

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From here, the book shifts perspectives across each of the twelve cantos, featuring an ink maid who writes pornographic letters to paying clients so that they can live out their sexual fantasies, and a pair of poets who are fighting over a woman they both desire, to name but a few of the early ones. Unfortunately, as the focus of the book shifts to a new person with each segment, it means that the main plot of the novel, the special political ramification of the appointment of a bureaucrat as the replacement for Cellini, rather than a poet, feel incredibly lost in the background.

As mentioned earlier, the book has been marketed as a fantasy novel, thanks to the descriptions of giant libraries, and a city dedicated to poetry and works of fiction. As such, I came to it expecting a focus on those aspects, to get to explore these huge libraries; and with it being a fantasy book I was hoping for some kind of magic to be involved with them, whether that be stories that can come to life, the power of the written word, or having to bind books with power to keep dark things from escaping the pages. This book has none of that. It seems like it’s been marketed as fantasy because it’s set in a city that doesn’t exist in the real world, but other than that this is a lengthy, ponderous, historical novel.

This isn’t in itself a bad thing: there’s a big market for historical fiction, and alternate history is a popular genre. However, if you come to this book expecting something very different, as I did, this revelation that you’re reading a completely different genre is a huge disappointment. I spent so long reading the book waiting for something to happen, something unusual or out of the ordinary that justified its labelling as fantasy, something that would make me actually enjoy it – but nothing came.

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It wasn’t just the surprise change in genre that I found troubling whilst reading the book, however, as there were a number of things with the content that I ended up not enjoying. One of the biggest things that I need to talk about is the fact that this book doesn’t come with any content or trigger warnings, and the content really does need some. There is constant sexual objectification of women throughout the book. Women are treated incredibly poorly, often being reduced to sexual objects, and there are even moments of sexual violence. With this being a fantasy or alternate history, these kinds of things didn’t need to be included for ‘historical accuracy’, and they serve no real purpose towards moving the plot forward. As such, the book felt like it was very much not geared towards female readers, and the lack of warning about some of the graphic content could put a lot of people off. There are also moments of extreme torture, abuse, fatphobia, and ableism scattered throughout, to further dampen any enjoyment of the book.

I came into The Carnival of Ash expecting certain things thanks to how the book was advertised, and when the book turned out to be something completely different I found it hard to find much to grab my attention, thanks to a plodding and almost aimless-seeming narrative, and content that often threw me out thanks to its shocking or disturbing nature. I went into this book hoping to find a lot to enjoy, but spent the majority of my time reading it forcing myself to get through it. If you’re a fan of dour and lengthy historical fiction you might enjoy this, but just be warned before picking it up.

The Carnival of Ash is out on 17th March from Solaris.

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