#Review: RING SHOUT, by P. Djèlí Clark

I’ve read three of P. Djèlí Clark’s books now, and some commonalities are definitely starting to emerge. Clark does great magic systems and great worldbuilding, and tends to set his books in places and periods of time where you typically don’t get a lot of fantasy and/or horror literature. The Black God’s Drums was set in antebellum New Orleans, The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is somehow a police procedural set in Cairo in 1912, and his most recent book, Ring Shout, is set in Georgia in the early 1920s, as the Ku Klux Klan is experiencing a resurgence and the movie The Birth of a Nation is taking America by storm.

Turns out the Klan is mostly motivated by a demonic force that literally eats hatred, and a surprising number of the members– designated in this book as “Ku Kluxers,” rather than “Klan,” which is applied to humans– are, uh, not really human at all. The three main characters are all part of an organization that can see the Ku Kluxers for what they are, and hunts them. And just in case it’s not obvious, all are Black, and all three are women as well.

I had … an interesting time with this book, where most of the issues I had with it are sort of outside the book itself. First, all three of Clark’s books that I’ve read are from Tor.com’s novella line. Ring Shout comes in at about 180 pages or so of story. And when you have a world that is as interesting as the worlds this guy is creating, I want to know more about them. This story, more than his other work, really felt kind of rushed. The main character, Maryse Boudreaux, has a vision of the Big Bad of the book and meets him just a couple of pages later. One of the main characters is killed off at about the halfway point, but it doesn’t have the emotional impact it ought to because we’ve spent so little time with her. That sort of thing.

I really need this guy to write a full-length novel, is what I’m saying. Or maybe three of them, one sequel to each of the books he’s written so far.

Because when you stop talking about what it isn’t, Ring Shout is pretty damn awesome. Clark’s writing style is as sharp and evocative as ever, and this is the most otherworldly of his books, so he taps into a really Lovecraftian vein that I haven’t seen from him previously, and y’all know I love me some Lovecraft-style horror. Maryse herself is fascinating, and I really enjoy the way Clark handles working in her backstory and the romantic relationship she has with one of the male characters. There is a character who is sort of an advisor to Maryse’s crew who speaks Gullah, and Clark doesn’t translate what she’s saying, and while I did hit up Google this morning to make sure I had properly intuited what “buckrah” meant, you get to a point by the end of the book where you understand what she’s saying pretty well. In the hands of a lesser author, this could have been really annoying; I actually found myself wanting more of Nana Jean by the end of the book. And then there’s Maryse’s sword, which … I’m not even going to tell you about Maryse’s sword. It’s an insanely cool idea, and I gotta leave something for you to find out for yourself.

(Just discovered this is being adapted for TV; I am excited.)

The ending also caught me by surprise. Without getting too far into spoiler territory, you can probably already guess that there’s a big fight against some sort of otherworldly entity at the end of the book (and if you’ve never paid any attention to what the Ku Klux Klan called their officers, it’s like history set itself up for this book to be written,) and you get told through the book that Maryse is going to be forced to make “a choice” during this confrontation, and, well, you are going to form some theories as the book goes on about what that choice is going to be and how it will come about.

And you will be wrong, because whatever you’re thinking, Clark has come up with a moment, here, and it’s a hell of a thing to encounter.

One more thing, and I’m putting it after a separator because I’m not really done thinking about it, and I’m not actually sure it’s an issue: I feel like it is a decision to take the Klan’s evil and, to a large extent, attribute it to inhuman, extraterrestrial/interdimensional forces. I feel like Clark knew he was doing this, or at least that he could be accused of it, because there is a lot of talk about choice in this book, and it’s particularly made clear that a certain subset of the (human) Klan are deliberately giving themselves over to this, no spoilers, Thing that they’re giving themselves over to. But D.W. Griffith’s movie wasn’t a huge success because Griffith was a sorcerer. It was a huge success because enormous swaths of America were just as awful and racist as he was. There is a reading of this book, and I think that reading is at least somewhat valid– after all, I’m talking about it– where the Ku Kluxers somewhat exonerate white America’s complicity in the (actual) Klan. I’m not sure it completely holds up, but it exists, and if you were put off by it I’m not sue I’d argue with you about it.

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Luther M. Siler

The author of SKYLIGHTS, THE BENEVOLENCE ARCHIVES and several other books.