Please excuse my love of puns as I use this opportunity to shout: THIS BOOK IS AMAZING. PLEASE BUY THIS BOOK IMMEDIATELY. IN FACT, BUY TWO.
It’s not just a pun that makes me want to yell about this book, though. Ring Shout is a magnificent, no-holds-barred triumph of a novel. P. Djèlí Clark hasn’t just knocked it out of the park, he’s knocked down the park and held a dance where the walls used to be.
And of course, a Ring Shout isn’t just a yell. It’s a sacred tradition passed down from slave time, when brief hours not spent in forced labor meant singing and moving in a circle, the songs ranging from celebration to warning to mourning. Ring Shout makes magic both literal and figurative from this ritual of resistance, infusing the novel with deep potency.
Because of its slender page count and its overall importance, I will be discussing the entire book, including parts of the ending. Some spoilers follow.
Ring Shout begins with a survey of the land and the players from a rooftop in Georgia. There’s the KKK marching below in their stupid white robes, only some of them actually are wizards. And up above (morally and physically) is Maryse, resistance fighter and soon-to-be Chosen One in a terrible and fateful battle for the soul of the world.
It’s really great to see a sword-wielding Chosen One be a Black woman in the American South, magic sword and all. Maryse wields a mystical blade forged with the anger of the enslaved, binding the souls of the African leaders who sold their own people, forcing them to repay their sins with blood and magic.
But lest this seem like Maryse and her crew are only bringing a sword to a gun fight, there’s also Chef and Sadie. Sadie is a crack shot, the sniper of the group who gets in a lot of verbal snipes when she’s not shooting Ku Kluxes. Chef handles guns well enough, but she’s the group’s explosives expert, trained in the trenches in WWI, where she fought disguised as a man. She’s also quite the ladykiller (is Clark also a fan of puns? It seems like he might be). And backing them up is Nana Jean, a Gullah elder and master of the Shout, and Maryse’s three mysterious Aunties, who appear to her in visions and charge her with making a choice that will save the world. But what will she save it from?
At first, Maryse thinks she’s going to save it from the KKK, which in this world is both the Klan and the Ku Kluxes. SFF has been rightly criticized for othering BIPOC, repeatedly publishing stories that cast non-white characters as non-human and then reaching the trite conclusion that “others, they’re just like us!” Ring Shout turns the trope on its head by othering a mentality and a race: white Klan members can transform into Ku Kluxes, non-human monsters in literal fact as well as in philosophy. Huge pasty beasts with six eyes and conical skulls, the Kluxes are as repulsive as they are frightening. They’re tough but stupid; all their power is in brute strength.
Yeah, that checks out.
But evil is ultimately a human trait, and Clark doesn’t let us forget that. The Kluxes might be hideous, but they arise from humans and were created by humans. Hate fuels their transformation and spreads it, like an infection. Bad enough, but their hate also draws down extradimensional horrors, beings that feed on hate and wants to raise up a god of hate and hunger on earth.
The herald of this dreadful god calls himself Butcher Clyde and he’s an absolutely terrifying villain, the best I’ve read in recent memory. He’s nothing but mouths, there to speak lies and devour everything. His gleaming cleavers are bad enough, but then he goes and uses them not just to fight, but to cut up an abomination and serve it, still living and quivering, to human beings…ugh. It’s disgusting, unsettling, and genius. What is hate but devouring the living? What is racism but sustaining yourself on something vile? I shuddered while reading it but take pure delight in telling others about it (a mark of good horror).
There are also the Night Doctors, which prey on my particular fears of a surgical theater of horrors but might not be quite so upsetting to everyone else. But more eerie still is their agent, Dr. Antoine Bisset, who sought them out to see if they could answer his most burning question: what is the source of hate?
Antoine thinks that hate might live in the body, in the humors, like bile or blood. Certainly there is a meta/physical aspect to it in the world of Ring Shout, since hate fuels the transformation of Klans into Ku Kluxes. But as Maryse learns over the course of her journey, hate also lives in the mind, and its fuel is memory.
Like her enemies, Maryse is full of hate. Unlike them, she has plenty of good reasons for it. She’s haunted by an experience so terrible that she keeps it secret even from herself, the sorrow and rage of it still unhealed. How could she have time to heal, when she’s barely had time to breathe? She’s spent her life running and fighting, fighting and hiding. When she’s not taking down Ku Kluxes she’s running moonshine (Prohibition is still in full swing), both endeavors full of dangers that compound her trauma.
Hate is a kind of power. It gets you through; it doesn’t let you despair. But hate eats away the justified just like anyone else. And the big choice the Chosen One has to make is where—or whether—that hate has to stop. Does it stop at justice? Does it stop at vengeance? Does it get to devour Maryse, and the whole world?
The dénouement is a magnificent one-two whammy on the KKK and white sympathizers. Not only are they easily taken in by a monstrous horror, they’re not even the main villains. They’re too feeble-minded to be Butcher Clyde’s real target. Their hate arises from ignorance and cowardice, making it too weak to be worth much on a magical level.
Even their hate isn’t worth a damn.
It doesn’t make them less dangerous, though. Maryse still has quite the challenge to deal with the Ku Kluxes on top of all the extradimensional horrors, but fortunately, she has help. She has uneasy allies in the Night Doctors, and more importantly, she has her friends and community. Forces from other worlds and monsters from other worlds are no match for a Shout.
Since Lovecraft Country is currently streaming, I think there will be people calling Ring Shout Lovecraftian, too. It’s not. Sure, it has the “cosmic” bit of Cosmic Horror down, and yes, there are tentacles, but Ring Shout has reason where Lovecraft only ever has madness. We know why Butcher Clyde has come. His motives are comprehensible, and fighting him in mind and body is a winnable battle. And it matters to him what happens on earth—sure, only insofar as he controls it, but it matters nonetheless.
And it matters what humans do, too. Maryse’s choice has meaningful consequences, as do the choices of her friends and enemies. Lovecraft wrote that humans were cosmically meaningless, and indeed that the universe had no greater meaning. Here, real change is possible. Victories mean something.
What exactly is won, though? Lives, yes, and maybe a little bit more insight into their enemies and themselves. But as Maryse is told by her guides, she only really wins the chance for the struggle to continue. The victory, though satisfying, does not put an end to the KKK. It barely even changes hearts and minds: only one white woman gasps out “they’re monsters!” and it’s not even clear that her sudden insight will lead to meaningful change in her attitude or actions.
So yes: the struggle continues.
But Maryse and her community live on. They find joy, power, and healing. The story is about them, from beginning to end. Maryse isn’t choosing not to hate out of an abstract sense of hope or love for her fellow man. She’s doing it for Chef and Sadie, her companions in arms who always have her back. She’s doing it for Michael George, her lover who wants to take her sailing around the world to show her all the things she’s never seen. She’s doing it for Nana Jean and Molly and Emma, who live around her and feed her, teach her, guide her, and need her.
And she’s doing it for herself.
Heroes of SFF and heroes of Civil Rights and Antiracism often end up dead, if they don’t start out that way from the beginning, their lives condensed into hashtags. There is a martyr in this book, but I’ll tell you plainly it’s not Maryse. The main character’s purpose is not to die; it’s to live, in all her complicated, contradictory, stubborn, brave glory. Even if this is the last we hear of Maryse (I hope it’s not), we’ll know she’s out there, mint julep in one hand and sword in the other.
Ring Shout comes out next week on October 13th.