#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.

#Review: MJ-12: ENDGAME, by Michael J. Martinez

510yHfinWeL._SX314_BO1,204,203,200_The usual set of disclaimers before I review any Michael J. Martinez book:  I’ve reviewed nearly everything he’s written on this blog somewhere, and not only did he thank me by name in the afterword of one of his earlier books, my review of MJ-12: Shadows is actually excerpted inside MJ-12: Endgame.  On top of that, he was nice enough to provide a book blurb for Tales: The Benevolence Archives, Vol. 3which I have featured right on the front cover.  I’ve never met the guy but if I ever do he’s gonna get a hug and there’s nothing he can do about it.

(Well, okay, there probably is.  But I’m hoping the police don’t get involved.)

Now, that said: I bought this book all by myself with my own money on purpose and there is no universe where I’m gonna write a fake positive review just to curry favor.  If I hadn’t liked it, I’d just never mention reading it on the site.

We good?  Okay.

One way or another it probably won’t surprise you to learn that I really liked this book.  MJ-12: ENDGAME is the third and final book in the MJ-12 trilogy, an alternative history book about CIA spies with superhuman powers (called Variants in this series) during the Cold War.  As usual, the premise all by itself earns the book a read for me, and this particular novel begins with the death of Stalin in 1952 and basically covers the CIA’s machinations to make sure that the head of Stalin’s secret police, Lavrentiy Beria (go ahead, click the link, I’d only barely heard of him too,) doesn’t end up in charge of the USSR.

Only, minor twist: Beria is a Variant, and can sorta shoot flames out of his hands, and he’s also in control of the Soviet Union’s still-very-much-a-secret Variant program.  MJ-12: Shadows sent me to Wikipedia to check up on stuff after I read it.  Endgame had me doing research damn near immediately, because I wanted to make sure the minimal stuff I remember from the couple of books about Stalin I’ve read was mostly accurate.

So you can read Endgame on a bunch of levels.  If you’re a history buff, you’ll enjoy it because the Cold War is interesting enough on its own and the Soviet Union immediately post-Stalin was, uh, a bit more volatile than most of the time.  If you like spy novels, you’ll get a great old-school spycraft novel, only with people with superhuman abilities instead of James Bond-style fancy gadgets.  And if you like superheroes, well, you won’t exactly get superheroes per se– these folks are spies, with all the moral gray areas that implies, and some of them make some, uh, rather cold decisions over the course of the book– but the range of powers Martinez’ characters have and the various drawbacks and limitations of those powers are fascinating.  There’s a great balancing act going on in this book– there are a lot of characters, and while the book does a decent act of standing on its own I’d strongly recommend reading the first two first, because there are so many moving pieces, such as an entire subplot going on involving the Korean War.  The end result is an elegantly-written, complex novel that still manages to clock in at just barely over 300 pages.  There’s not a wasted page anywhere in this book, guys; it’s that well-done.

My only complaint?  I want more, and while Martinez doesn’t exactly tie the universe up with a bow on it the ending makes it clear that while there is definitely space for future books in this universe they will take place in an entirely different status quo.  That said, this series is radically different in tone and genre from the Daedalus series, Mike’s previous trilogy, and I genuinely can’t wait to see what he’s got coming next.

All available stars; would read again; you should go read now.