The Carnival Of Ash by Tom Beckerlegge

The Blurb On The Back:

Cadenza is the City of Words.  Run by poets, its skyline is dominated by the towers of its libraries, its heart beats to the stamping thrum of the Printing Quarter.

Young wordsmith Carlo Mazzoni arrives intent on making his name, but as the bells ring out mourning the death of the city’s poet-leader he finds himself embroiled in the city’s turmoil.  A war threatens not only to destroy Cadenza, but remove it from, history altogether.

Thanks to Rebellion Publishing for the review copy of this book.

You can order THE CARNIVAL OF ASH by Tom Beckerlegge from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s the first half of the 16th century.

Cadenza is an Italian city state ruled by the famed Artifex, Tommaso Cellini (a leader known as much for the brutality of his rule as the beauty of his poetry), the city is famed for both its poetry and its Printing Quarter and vies with Florence and its hated neighbour, Venice, for control and influence.

21-year-old Carlo Mazzoni is the son of a minor nobleman who was forced to leave Cadenza for the countryside in the wake of an assassination attempt on Cellini.  A talented poet, Carlo dreams of returning his family’s place in the city through his own verse.  Unfortunately, he’s arrived on the very day of Cellini’s death in a tragic accident and the city has been thrown into chaos as the Council of Seven elects to replace him with Cosimo Petrucci – an accountant who has never published a word of poetry in his life.

Having been told by his father to seek out famed poet Lorenzo Sardi (known as one of the notorious Duelling Counts thanks to his bitter rivalry with former friend, Borso Cardano), Carlo strikes up a friendship with Raffaele (an ambitious young man in Sardi’s retinue) but his meeting with Sardi is a disaster and the more he tries to make things right, the worse things get.  With the help of Raffaele and a gravedigger and alchemist called Ercole, Carlo tries to turn his fortunes around but Cadenza is a city on the brink.  Filled with secrets and horrors, violent forces are at play as the city’s elite jockey for position and influence and it won’t take much for the inhabitants to tear the place to the ground …

Tom Beckerlegge’s alternative historical novel has beautiful imagery and grounds the fictional city of Cadenza with an authentic sense of place.  I enjoyed the conceit of dividing the city’s overarching story between 12 individual stories (or Cantos), but too many lacked a resolution (notably the one about the Ink Maiden Hypatia) and while some characters appear in multiple Cantos, none of them are as well developed as they could be.

I had heard of Beckerlegge’s books for children (written under the name Tom Becker) but not previously read any of his work.  However, I do enjoy a good alternative history and picked this up because I was intrigued by the notion of a city ruled by poets.

One of the big strengths of this book is the sense of period and place. Beckerlegge doesn’t nail down the exact timeline for this book but by mentioning to real historical people (including the Venetian Doge, Andrea Gritti) it’s clear that this is supposed to be the 1520s or 1530s. He really gets across the idea of a city driven by writing and publishing, from the energy of the Printing Quarter to the honours and privilege that surround Cadenza’s most acclaimed writers.  

Given the patriarchal vibe to the period and place, I also enjoyed the power given to the Ink Maidens, educated women such as Hypatia (Vittoria Giodarno) who make a living writing letters (often containing sexual fantasies) to the city’s rich and powerful.  In fact for me, the Second Canto, which follows Hypatia as she becomes intrigued by a potential client who wants to watch her write, had the most intriguing premise of the book because it is about a woman who is trying to take back power in the only way available to her, even though it means she is viewed as little more than a prostitute.  This was probably why I was so disappointed by how her storyline tapers out – there is no resolution to the identity of Zanni or how he knows so much about her and the way you discover in subsequent Cantos that she’s basically fallen into opium addiction just feels like such a waste – especially as there was room to develop her further through her relationship with her sister Maddelina (who is featured in the Seventh Canto). 

The lack of resolution is a common strand to too many of the Cantos.  For example, the Fourth Canto follows Petrucci who has taken over as Artifex but who is battling his own unpopularity with the city’s denizens.  Although I enjoyed the background the reader gets on Petrucci’s predecessor and the over-arching plot (where Petrucci is forced to discover if he is capable of doing what it takes to rule), you never find out what happens to Silenzi (the sinister, whispering monk-like figure who helped Petrucci take power but whose own motives are unknown) and nor do you find out who has been writing “Scio” (I know) around the city and in letters to Petrucci.

I enjoyed the Sixth Canto in which Fra Bernardo (a soldier turned monk with a gift for detection) is asked to investigate following the murder of one of the city’s librarians, although the allusions to THE NAME OF THE ROSE were a bit too heavy-handed for me towards the end.  The Eleventh Canto (in which a group of nuns are subjected to sinister goings on) was probably the stand out for me as it’s creepy, atmospheric and ties back in with really well with threads from the preceding Cantos in a way that was really satisfying.  Similarly the Tenth Canto (in which a soldier is asked by a Cadenza lord to force his wife out of a tower she tricked him into building) is cleverly done, ties in with themes in one of the earlier Cantos and has a sense of humour to it that made me chuckle.  

Lorenzo Sardi’s story forms part of the backbone of the overall book.  His backstory and rivalry with Cardano is set out in the Third Canto and he pops up in various of the other Cantos, from the first to the last.  Although his rivalry with Cardano is ho-hum, I enjoyed the relationship he has with his retinue and his slow realisation that he is more at their mercy than they are at his.  In fact, I would have liked to have seen the devious Raffaele have a Canto of his own because his drive and desperation were more interesting to me than the hapless Carlo whose opening Canto left me a bit underwhelmed, in part because he’s such an idiot to a point where I didn’t believe in his reactions.  To be fair, Beckerlegge gives Carlo more maturity when he makes an appearance in later Cantos but he never held my attention in the way I think he is intended to.

There is some great, lyrical writing within the book and Beckerlegge has a real gift for visuals, including the slow reveal of the black writing on Hypatia’s skin that recounts the event that changed her life and also the depictions of an outbreak of plague tent in the Eighth Canto, which are really chilling in places.  However too often I felt that the book relies on stock caricature and themes, e.g. the evils of Cellini’s reign, the motivation of the killer who Bernardo is looking for.  The result is that it just doesn’t quite come together in a way that made the overall read a fulfilling one, although I will definitely check out Beckerlegge’s other work. 

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