The Carnival Of Ash by Tom Beckerlegge tells the story of a city that never was in Italy. An alternative history about a city of poets and librarians - and I say alternative history instead of fantasy because it's definitely more alt-history with barely any fantasy elements.
Cadenza is a city run by poets with libraries everywhere. Each chapter is told from a different perspective, starting with Carlo Mazzoni who arrives at the city gates intent on redeeming his families name only to find that the poet-leader who could help with that is recently deceased.
What really stuck out with the story is that you never know what was coming next, which is mostly due to how the story is told. With every chapter following a new character (apart from the last), you learn about how the city functions, all the lies, deceit and underhandedness of those ruling the city both in the public eye and those in the background. With so much worldbuilding going on with all the points of view, splitting them down into chapters of their own made it more of an interesting read than having a particular character's arc split over many and getting lost between constantly switching back and forth between multiple characters. Each chapter is split into multiple sections, but you get a story before moving on to the next. It became enjoyable to notice little bits that tie some of the characters together even if it was just through the mention of a name. Every story brings something new to the story and the city of Cadenza.
All the chapters eventually come to a head in the final chapter where everything meshes together. As the title and cover allude to, the city turns to ash as all those libraries are great for fires. All the grandiose aspirations of the poor and the rich in Cadenza are ripped apart in flame and destruction. A fitting end for a city that is full of corruption and depravity with there being little room for you to feel pity for any of the characters other than perhaps the gravedigger Ercole who you first meet in the very beginning.
Some characters I could read an entire book on. Not all, some I was glad to move on from. Some provided an interesting insight into why the city is like it is, why characters are like they are. Some I wanted more and was disappointed when the story then moved on to following someone else. The changes of pace with each chapter though kept things interesting to various degrees.
The Carnival Of Ash is a book that will divide readers. It'll either be loved or hated. There's no real character to root for, no one to get you going throughout. With the many points of view, some with seemingly little relevance to what came before it or after, it might become a struggle for some. But stick around for the finale and you can see it all come together. It might not be the ending that people want, but you see where everything was leading, finally. Really, I think that's the main problem - you can't tell where the book is going other than with the slight hint in the title and cover.
There are also some very dubious parts that some people won't like. I'm surprised the book didn't come with some sort of warning. There's not just physical violence, but torture (sexual torture along with things like cutting out tongues), sexual violence, stalking, sexism (which for the time period it's set in is not a surprise), and a lot of other very questionable thoughts and actions. It wasn't a problem for me, but you can definitely see some people not wanting to read further in some parts. Some bits needed less detail and to just be implied. Then it might be a bit more palatable for some.
If you can get through it, the final pay off chapter brings everything together well, closing of the book along with the city of Cadenza. The prose was engaging, the world-building was brilliant, and the premise was incredible. Sure, not all of it landed, but there's enough there to keep you going to the final payoff. It won't be to everyone's tastes and that's okay. It's dark and engaging in a way I wasn't expecting, where the real star of the book is the city rather than the characters.