Now Borrowing: The Ballad of Black Tom

March 1, 2017     Ro     Book Reviews, Short Stories/Novellas

Now Borrowing: The Ballad of Black Tom

People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn't there. Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father's head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping.
A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
Published by Tor Books on February 16th 2016
ISBN: 9780765386618
Where to Find It: Amazon|B&N|Shop Indie|Goodreads
Genres: Fiction, Dark Fantasy, Horror
Pages: 152
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased Book

Overall Review: The Ballad of Black Tom is slick and striking in its simplicity. Charles Thomas Tester’s story starts as a deceptively short jaunt along the edges of the magical underworld resting somewhere just beyond our field of vision. In few words, Victor La Valle breathes life into the Jazzy 1920s giving us a glimpse at the wild and wicked heartbeat of Harlem, the raucous rhythms of Red Hook and the deceptive calm of Fleshing Meadows.

LaValle is that voice whispering in your ear reminding you that the devil always gets his due... Click To Tweet

This is a tale so morally sardonic and socially insightful you’ll have difficulty convincing yourself we’re not all just a tiny step away from madness. Lovecraft only wishes he understood the dark-side of human nature and the twisted underbelly pressing just beneath the surface with this type of depth.

In The Ballad of Black Tom, LaValle is that voice whispering in your ear reminding you that the devil always gets his due…in perfect pitch.

5 out of 5 stars

The Ballad of Black Tom is a brilliant ode to Lovecraftian storytelling and a slap on the wrist for the racist overtones in his [Lovecraft] writing done with such flare you’ll be too engrossed in the tale to realize – at the time – you’ve been given a more nuanced view of both the city and its multicultural inhabitants of the day.

The Ballad of Black Tom navigates 1924 New York with a sharp eye to the realities of living in a two-natured world. LaValle’s Harlem, Red Hook, and Fleshing Meadows aptly displays the necessity of self-restraint and misdirection in order to safely make it through not only the hustle game but any given neighborhood.

Charles Thomas Tester is a seemingly jovial black man scratching out a living skirting the edges of the dark and dangerous. He code-switches just as quickly as he changes trains to travel between neighborhoods. He’s a chameleon, confident in his disguise and his hustle. He knows leaving his neighborhood is as fraught with danger as completing any given assignment.

The Ballad of Black Tom is a poignant warning of how easily men make monsters of themselves. Click To Tweet

LaValle’s language choices, bringing both the characters and the city to life, are keen and insightful. His world familiar and recognizable despite being from a bygone era. His imagery pulls you in creating the sense of walking down the street beside Tom, looking over his shoulder while he strums his guitar, and standing stunned alongside him as he receives devastating news.  The sounds of the city are rich and plentiful echos just out of hearing as you read and the ominous twists and surprising turns of his journey will have you checking the scenery outside your windows for assurance.

It’s  a vivid and violent parable exposing how brutal treatment begets brutality in turn and can swiftly give way to damnation.

Note: This book was recently announced as a Bram Stoker Award finalist and a 2016 Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novella so it’s not just me that thinks it’s kicks all levels of ass.