Book review: Ring Shout by P. Djeli Clark

Hunting trans-dimensional monsters in an alternate reality United States?  Heck, sign me up!  I freely admit that the monster hunting niche of urban fantasy holds a special appeal to me, so I was very happy when I realized this would be that kind of book.  Coupled with impeccable writing, compelling characters and a little bit of revisionist history, this title turned out to be a hidden gem of 2020.  Clark is quickly growing on me, and Ring Shout just further cements his permanency on my bookshelf.

Maryse, Sadie and Chef are watching a Ku Klux Klan parade, when three of the hooded figures approach the bait they left for them: a charred dog carcass, stuffed with explosives.  These KKK members don’t behave like people, though; more like animals.  We soon see why.  As soon as they are blown up, they transform into demons, regenerate and attack the trio of monster hunters.

The story takes place in Georgia after the first world war.  The movie The Birth of a Nation had been an elaborate spell, which opened a gateway to another dimension from which demons emerged and took over human hosts.  These demons fed on hate, so they were attracted to white supremacists in the KKK.  Soon, there would be two distinct species: the human Klans and the demonic Ku Kluxes who are hunting colored people.  Maryse and her companions are part of a resistance movement, which uses guerrilla tactics to ambush small groups of demons and capture their bodies for further research into methods of killing them.

Maryse has been chosen by other otherworldly beings to lead the fight against the demons.  She is given a special sword, which she can conjure, and which contains the power and rage of generations of black slaves.  She soon becomes the focal point for the enemy, who sends a more powerful entity to defeat her.  In the ensuing fight, her sword is broken, but she manages to escape.  Following soon after, her lover is abducted by the KKK, and she must enlist the help of a different kind of demons to help defeating the Ku Kluxes.  In an explosive finale on top of Stone Mountain near Atlanta, Maryse and her ragtag group of fighters must face the Klans, Ku Kluxes and worse demons to save the world.

The first thing I noticed and appreciated about this book was the writing style.  It is dense, and unlike so many other Hugo-nominated works in the recent years, it is very eloquent, with flawless grammar and sentence structure.  The book is written in Maryse’s point of view, and even though she has very visible idiosyncrasies in her speech, they are very consistent throughout the text, and they grew on me over time.  Clark has truly mastered his written word, and thanks to this, the book felt fast paced and eminently readable.

The story itself is a little derivative, but it is combined in some fun ways.  Possibly the best aspect of the story is the belittling of the KKK.  Its members are portrayed as weak-minded hateful individuals, who predominantly serve as meat sacks for demons from other dimensions.  Clark is not the first to make fun of the Klansmen.  Garth Ennis did an excellent job in portraying them in a similar fashion in the Preacher comic, but without the demons.  Clark’s dismissal of the Klansmen, both moral and later physical, is a welcome historical revision.  Making fun of them is certainly better than taking them overly seriously and putting them on a pedestal.

The interdimensional travel and descriptions of the demons feel like I’ve seen them a few times before but can’t exactly put my fingers on them.  Even such details, like a character turning two-dimensional to pass through a narrow slit feels familiar.  Most of the storyline is also by the book, including Maryse’s personal baggage and her acceptance of the past before she can move on.  However, Clark still managed to throw me off at the beginning of the third act, when Maryse is offered a truce by the demons.  Maryse, and by extension I, had our expectations about the demons’ offer, and so the twist came as quite a shock for both of us.  Unfortunately, after this, the story returns to its conventional self, including the sentimental ending.  Once the book was over, I was uncertain about two things: How did Maryse’s sword, such an important part of the plot, actually work, and why did the demons pick the KKK in the first place.  While the answer to the first question may lie in the imperfect narrator, the second question breaks most of the story.

Still, thanks to Clark’s exceptional writing style, I flew through the book in one evening and thoroughly enjoyed myself.  While reading, I didn’t question the story or identified any plot holes.  In this regard, the book is head and shoulders above any other offering in its Hugo ballot for best novella, and I’ll be happy to put in on top.  It’s been a genuine pleasure to read Ring Shout.

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