Erin Larson: Book Reviews & Essays

“Ring Shout” by P. Djèlí Clark

Ring Shout

By P. Djèlí Clark

 

I received an ARC of Ring Shout from Macmillan-Tor/Forge in exchange for an honest review.

 

Roll back the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer seventy-five years to 1922, a year which was still chilly in the shadow of the Great War; replace the vampires with Lovecraftian entities which have hijacked the Ku Klux Klan, and replace the Scoobies with three Black women—Sadie Watkins, Cordelia “Chef” Lawrence, and Maryse Boudreaux. This is the best way I can describe P. Djèlí Clark’s latest novella Ring Shout, and like Buffy, it’s relentlessly entertaining but also resonant with metaphors which are effective despite their lack of subtlety.

Sadie, Chef, and Maryse are instantly likeable from the first chapter. Clark’s characterizations are clean and clear; Ring Shout’s action sequences—of which there are many—are kinetic and thrilling and I had a blast with every single one them, but I found myself craving more downtime with the three women because their dialogue crackles with the authenticity of real friendship, and it was a sincere joy just to enjoy their banter and easy rapport. Secondary characters don’t quite get the development they need to fully shine; this is an unfortunate side effect of the novella format, and I can’t help but wonder if Ring Shout would have benefitted from fewer characters.

Perhaps the most striking element of Ring Shout is the density and complexity of its mythology. The hierarchy of villains is surprisingly dimensional for such a short book, with multiple factions and distinct characters who have dynamics among themselves, and Clark’s ability to make it all coherent rather than an awkward mishmash of disparate elements is truly impressive. The world of Ring Shout is one of infinite potential: I can imagine sequels populated with a variety of gods, aliens, demons, and monsters, and nothing would feel out-of-place in Clark’s capable hands.

I do have one complaint: I want more! It’s not that I think Ring Shout should be longer—the story is the right length, its brevity becoming a weakness only when some emotional beats fail to land not because of any storytelling shortcomings, but because we simply have not spent enough time with the characters. (Bringing it back to Buffy: I am reminded of the Jesse arc in the opening episodes, which suffers from the same problem.) But the core issue is that Ring Shout feels like the pilot of a television series, or the first entry of a serial, and reading it without knowing if or when the next installment is coming is unsatisfying in a way it wouldn’t be if it were a full novel.

This may be an unfair criticism; I’m frustrated more with the untapped potential which exists in the negative space beyond the boundaries of the book than I am with the book itself—and I admittedly don’t know what I would have done differently if I were involved in the writing or publishing of Ring Shout. Expand the story by 100-200 pages? That would stretch it too thin. Publish it alongside successive entries in an omnibus edition? That seems presumptuous. Have the next installment lined up for publication six months out? That would be my ideal solution, but it seems unreasonable to expect that kind of turnaround from the author and the publisher.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that I really liked this book and I’m grumpy because I don’t know how long I’ll have to wait before I get to spend more time in this world and with these characters. This criticism will, I hope, eventually become irrelevant. But in the meantime, I highly recommend Ring Shout. I don’t want to wait alone. I want you to feel grumpy too.

 

Review by Erin Larson

Ring Shout will be published October 13th, 2020.

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