The retreating winter had left cypresses shivering in the graveyard beside the church di San Felice. In the shadow of listing crosses, muddy hollows stagnated; angels slipped despairingly into a tangled sea of grass.The Carnival of Ash, Chapter 1 opening
Many thanks to the author, Tom Beckerlegge, publisher, Solaris, and tour host, @TheWriteReads, for providing a physical ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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…Provided by Tour Host
Book Content Warnings: infidelity, drowning, suicide, physical abuse, plague, torture, eating disorder
Author Tom Beckerlegge welcomes readers into The Carnival of Ash, a city of romantic poets, dramatic feuds, and dark, deviant corners. In this epicenter of culture a citizen’s mastery of the written word reigns supreme. Leaders vie for the hearts of their people through their most moving prose and inflammatory verse. But while this city basks in its years at the pinnacle of glory, dangerous forces threaten to topple all they’ve built. Threat of invasion, sickness, and rebellion loom ever closer as the citizens revel in their cultural superiority and comfortable lives. Structured in twelve ‘cantos’ following multiple point of view characters, readers get an intimate and diverse cross section of this city in its most tumultuous time.
Just as Salerno, the Town of Hippocrates, was a font of medical knowledge, and the glassblowers on the Venetian island of Murano were acknowledged as the masters of their craft, so Cadenza became defined by its love of the written word.The Carnival of Ash, p14
The story opens with a gravedigger who is on his way to bury a recent body but finds a morose poet occupying the empty grave plot instead, very much alive. This poet, ever so melodramatic, recounts his story to the gravedigger and frames the story progression from there on. Each chapter features a different perspective character until about mid-way through the book when we start to see the characters finally converge. It’s an interesting way to present a broad view of the city and I loved many of the perspectives, but I enjoyed some more than others as is often the case with multi-POV stories. Because there are so many characters I also found myself struggling to place some names later on. However I overwhelmingly enjoyed the structure of the twelve cantos. It was a joy to turn back and read the brief sentence in the table of contents hinting at what the upcoming chapter would contain, and I loved the air of mystery in not knowing which character was next or how they would interlock towards the end!
“What do we celebrate here, if not the passage of time, and our noble efforts to leave an imprint upon it – even if it is but the faintest breath on a mirror of interminable dimensions? That faint breath is immortality. Only in Cadenza does the poet sit proudly beside the ruler.”
“Only in Cadenza is the ruler himself a poet,” I say.The Carnival of Ash, p407
Since the book is marketed as a fantasy I was a bit disappointed by the lack of magic or fantasy creature elements. Similar to many of the bloggers on this tour I’d instead describe this as more literary fiction. Nevertheless I enjoyed the story! Anyone who enjoys discussion of poetry and an old Italian setting should consider giving this a read. The style and writing combination reminded me a bit of the romantic style of classic literature, modernized. A quick note, though, that I’d definitely categorize this as adult literature. There’s sexual content, torture, and around two-thirds through the book it takes a dip into darker waters. If you don’t mind a more realistic portrait of the dark corners in a historical, fictional city, then this book should be no problem at all 🙂
About the Author
Tom Beckerlegge grew up in the northwest of England in a house filled with books. Writing as Tom Becker, he won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize with his debut novel; The Carnival of Ash is his first adult book. He lives in Enfield with his wife and young son.