Reviews

Fantasy Novella Review: Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

I’ve been hearing about P. Djèlí Clark’s exceptional novellas for a while, so when Ring Shout came out in October to a cascade of glowing reviews, it seemed like the perfect time to dive in to his work.

Ring Shout takes place in 1920s Georgia in a world where members of the Ku Klux Klan are turning into literal monsters, passing for human to those without the sight, but with unnatural size and strength. It is told in a version of African American Vernacular English (with one character speaking a variant of Gullah) from the perspective of a Black woman in her mid-20s, Maryse Boudreaux, who along with a few compatriots and a magic sword, have set about monster-fighting. As the Ku Kluxes expand their reach through an enchanted film, The Birth of a Nation, Maryse has to confront the demons of her past as she tries to stop the literal demons out to destroy her future.

I really like the message Clark communicates through the schemes of the antagonists and the internal struggle of the heroine—there’s obviously the visceral “kill the racist monsters with swords,” but Clark interweaves a lot more nuance into the fight. And he tells the tale with excellent prose. And yet, I had a hard time connecting.

Stories with monsters out to destroy the heroes tend to either lean to the creepy and atmospheric or to the guns (or swords) blazing, this-could-be-an-action-movie-script. I have a very strong personal preference for the former—atmosphere keeps me on the edge of my seat, and my eyes tend to glaze over during big fight scenes. Clark tries to deliver the best of both in Ring Shout, but the former is undercut by the lack of unknown. There’s just not much mystery about who the antagonists are, what drives them, or how they plan to strike. And so, while there are passages that might make you squeamish, there’s not much wondering what’s around the corner. Now the action scenes are bigger and badder and seem professionally done, but while I expect they’re exciting and cathartic for some, action scenes don’t usually click for me.

Ultimately, while the themes were excellent and the prose was solid, Ring Shout served too much information too quickly, and thus failed to maintain the kind of tension that the story needed and deserved. I suspect that if you’re the sort of reader who gets sucked into action scenes, the multiple fight scenes between badass women and hordes of monstrous Ku Kluxes, plus some strong Rule of Cool, should complement the strong prose and themes to make for a really good read. But I am not that reader.

Recommended if you like: chaotic action scenes with big weapons and bigger monsters, strong and nuanced antiracist themes.

Overall rating: 13 of Tar Vol’s 20. Three stars on Goodreads

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