In The Carnival of Ashes, Tom Beckerlegge takes us back centuries, to a time when Italy was ruled by city-states and small kingdoms, when Venice governed a trading empire, and the fictional city of Cadenza was ruled by poets. This novel—which is arranged in linked prose chapters called cantos—shows us the strange events that bring down the city of poets and libraries through the eyes of a cross-section of its inhabitants. And not only do the characters vary from high to low, poet and non-poet, the cantos themselves transform from comic to Gothic to mystery to tragedy and more. This book is absolutely stunning.
We first see Cadenza through the eyes of the (initially) hapless Carlo. Carlo is an aspiring poet whose family originally fled from Cadenza decades ago due to a political scandal. Sheltered Carlo has come to redeem his family name, only to be cut to metaphorical ribbons the first time he meets a group of Cadenzan poets and battered by a lot of plain bad luck. Thankfully, he meets a strangely erudite gravedigger who will take him in until he figures out his next steps. The next time we see Carlo will be in a group of writers playfully kidnapping a woefully bad poet whose only redeeming feature is that his father is very rich. Later, we see Carlo as he tries to save a few lives during a revolutionary bonfire that would have done Savonarola proud.
But it takes us quite a long time to rejoin Carlo, because Beckerlegge introduces us to a mysterious ink maid (a woman who makes money by writing customized love letters to her clients), a formerly great poet who squandered his talent on a feud, monks and scholars, torture victims, pompous politicians and their wily wives, and others. By the time we’ve circled back around to Carlo, we have a fairly thorough impression of a city that is teetering on a precipice while others whistle as hard as they can in the dark. We learn that Cadenza is very much about tradition. For example, their leaders must be poets and the current leader (who took over after the previous one was killed by one of his bookshelves) is an accountant. When that leader cancels a central part of the city’s carnival revels, it leads to unrest among the poets. Traditions are jettisoned further when plague arrives. Rumors of invading Venetians and a poorly timed attack of paranoia tip the city even further into chaos. Without their traditions holding them in place, opportunists come out of the woodwork to either settle scores or rise to previously impossible heights.
Readers who enjoy political machinations will like The Carnival of Ash, as will readers who like vivid historical fiction (even if Cadenza wasn’t real). Readers who like virtuosic writing will like this book a lot, too. I was delighted by the way the cantos switched tones and genres without skipping a beat. Even though the characters are, more or less, connected, the different cantos and their genres created a sense of how different all of their lives and perspectives are. In so many books, especially genre fiction, we see characters come together to right a wrong or solve a problem. In The Carnival of Ash, everyone very much has their own problems and motivations. Alliances are temporary and betrayals are frequent in this collection of stories. The end result is an incredibly rich read that I want to dive back into.
I’m very much looking forward to seeing what Beckerlegge serves up next.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.