(thanks to Rebellion Publishing and NetGalley for granting me an ARC of this book!)
Read if you like: political science, grit, lyrical writing, stories-within-stories, books, libraries, upheaval, thematic worldbuilding, setting as character, carnivals, the decline of man, (un)sympathetic characters, existentialism in the vein of Sartre/Kierkegaard, poetry, history, survival of the fittest, architecture
Triggers: suicidal ideation, gore, physical violence, sexual violence, torture, rape, blood, murder, disease, sexism, misogyny, fatphobia, emotional abuse, arson
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…
(Goodreads book profile here)
The Carnival of Ash is a lyrical fantasy.
Keyword being lyrical.
And I want to start with this because I think people might expect differently. That they might be led astray by the synopsis. I think, personally, that people might expect less of the lyrical and more of the fantasy. To (grossly) generalize: the sprawling world makes it fantasy, but the existentialist themes and the experimentalist narrative style makes it literary/lyrical.
When something is lyrical, I find that it often approaches theme like a literary novel might. And, in my opinion, Beckerlegge’s novel borrows stylistic choices from the literary genre. If that’s not your thing, then you’re likely to be disappointed. But if it is your thing, exactly like it’s mine, then this book is for you.
There are a lot of trigger warnings for this book, given that it deals with a lot of existentialist themes. These triggering themes do run the risk of feeling underdeveloped at times, simply because there isn’t given equal room for every character. This is a product of the bold narrative/stylistic choices, I personally think, and not necessarily a reflection of the author (if at all). All of the characters have generous backstories and their different dynamics overlap in interesting ways that creates a subtle, but consistent throughline across the multiple stories.
But please note this: they’re not all sympathetic characters.
This is ultimately a book that explores one theme through many stories: the decline of man by his own hand. It’s about shooting yourself in the foot. It’s a story about the tragedy of a community as told through its various people and their interconnected lives.
Each chapter explores a societal angle of a world run on books, by books, for books. We follow a monk, economist, prostitute, poet, gravedigger, scholar, criminal, politician, murderer, immigrant, etc. You take that one element (books), and then you saturate a world with it, giving that world to the reader via stories-within-stories. These stories are tied together like dominoes, and it’s this narrative boldness that gives the novel a literary flair for me. Alongside the lyrical prose itself, of course.
Because the world within the novel venerates words, you’d think the story will venerate words—but no. To me, the story reads as more of a warning. It’s a story about how words can both create and corrode. In a way, it’s a very self-aware book. Almost a bit of a parody taken to the extreme. I hesitate to call it tragicomedy, but it runs a bit in that vein, making it almost Shakespearian in its thematic focus and approach. Or Sartrean. Or Kirkegaardian.
Lastly, without giving too many spoilers away: imagine The Great City of Cadenza as a parallel to the Great Library of Alexandria and let that guide your expectation insofar as plot goes.