By Paige & Jennifer
This month we’re covering the first novella in our Nebula series: Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark. We were pretty eager to read this one because of Paige’s love for his other novella, A Dead Djinn in Cairo (which is fantastic btw and everyone should read it!). Ring Shout takes place in the 1920s in Georgia. Prohibition is going on, WWI is still in everyone’s memory, and the KKK is running rampant. To make matters worse, demonic creatures called Ku Kluxes have infiltrated the already demonic KKK and their activity is increasing.
Our main character, Maryse Boudreaux, is a part time bootlegger and part-time sword wielding, Ku Klux destroying badass. Maryse is fueled by anger and hatred at past injustices done to her family and to the African American community as a whole. Her desire for vengeance has made her Earth’s champion against the Ku Kluxes, but the hate that fuels her makes her an appealing choice for the Ku Kluxes as well. In the end Maryse has to choose: a chance at real power to protect herself and her people, or her own humanity.
First, I want to say that Clark writes some amazing characters. In this novella I instantly became attached to a character named Sadie, a “foul-mouthed sharpshooter”. Hilarious character. I did also appreciate the nods to history throughout the story. The movie Birth of a Nation, which is a movie that basically glorifies the KKK, serves as the main ritual for summoning the Ku Kluxes. And if there was ever a movie that would summon demons that feed off of hate and oppression, this movie is it. There is also mention of Tulsa being over run by the Ku Kluxes, which is a definite reference to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. So I think that this book would be best enjoyed by those who have some knowledge of US history, particularly regarding racism.
But I think what I like most about this story is that there was a lot that I didn’t understand. To preface, I am a white reader, and to give you an idea about what sort of education I had on the topic of racism in America, I didn’t learn about the Tulsa Race Massacre until just a few years ago when I was in my late 20s. I grew up in Tulsa. There are MASSIVE gaps in my knowledge. And this book made that very obvious. So, I looked some stuff up. Honestly, it made me feel better that I wasn’t the only one who had to. I found this article by Darry Lore at NPR who also had to look some things up, so I’m in good company. A SFF novella that makes you learn about the history of your country? I’d call that a win.
While I honestly preferred A Dead Djinn in Cairo to Ring Shout, I can completely see why this book was nominated. It is a well-written, fast paced story with likable characters and a hell of a final scene. I will warn you, this book is heavy on body horror so if that isn’t your thing, either skip this one or mentally prepare yourself. It’s intense, even by my standards. I can’t imagine Jennifer reading this book without dying laughing. 8/10. Would recommend.
…and what did Jennifer think?
Wow. Just wow. This is a very complexly layered story and I probably could read through it several times and still be picking up on small details, symbols, or historical artifacts. In his acknowledgments, Clark mentioned being in part inspired by A Wrinkle in Time and oh my god did that hit home, with the Aunties taking the place of Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, and all of the disturbing Camazotz vibes. The evils of racism are horrific enough on their own, but throw some white, pointy-headed demons in there, plus the nightmarish Doctors and you are all set up for a gory time.
So does that mean I didn’t like it? Absolutely not, this book was amazing even if not my preferred genre. First, I appreciated that Clark wrote a story that was centered around the power and leadership of women – particularly black women. Maryse and her squad, the mentor characters of Nana Jean and the Aunties, even the evil Ku Kluxes are answering to a Mother Cyclops. I also agree with Paige that the inclusion of historical themes was *so good* in this novella. Besides Birth of a Nation and the Tulsa race massacre, Clark brought Gullah language and culture (namely through ring shouts) to the front and center of this story as well. If, like me, you were unfamiliar with the Gullah, Kenyon College hosts a Gullah Digital Archive, and the Library of Congress has an excellent research guide on Gullah history and culture as well.
I didn’t think this novella was going to head me down a research rabbit hole, but here we are. That alone would have been enough to earn 4 stars from me, but on top of that it was incredibly well-written, the characterization was perfection, and I’ll be pondering the overall message for some time to come.
And that’s a wrap on our review of Nebula novella nominee, Ring Shout. Stay tuned for more Nebula nominee reviews coming to you monthly, and be sure to check out the Nebula winners when they are revealed June 5th!