Wednesday, September 13, 2017

REVIEW: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

The Ballad of Black Tom
Author: Victor LaValle
Genre: Dark Fantasy/Horror

My Ratings:
4/5 stars
PG-13 for swearing/racial slurs, disturbing images, and some violence.
Recommend to fans of dark fantasy, character development, and origin stories.

Summary (via Goodreads):
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 Review:

The Ballad of Black Tom possesses an eerie ambiance where unexpected magic lurking in the corners of 1930's New York, amid a bustling nation still trying to find its identity as a melting pot and against a backdrop of cruel and violent racial prejudice.

This is a story of ultimate evil, but also of a more garden variety of evil -passive, selfish, and ignorant- an evil that continually plagues the human race. It is the story of ordinary humans committing ordinary evils -and the extraordinarily terrifying monsters that are born from it. It is brutal and despicable and honest.

I feel lately my reviews tend to talk more about characters, characterization, and character development than anything but, guys, CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT. It's a magnificent beast, especially when executed so beautifully!

And so, it's my pleasure to I introduce to you, Black Tom.

Black Tom's development is the making of this story. He's so ordinary and lovable then compelling and complicated and I ADORE HIM. LaValle expertly manipulates my sympathy, disgust, and horror as he weaves the elements of Black Tom's journey through an increasingly disturbing and tragic narrative. Detestable characters slither through the pages and more than once their cruelty made me want to THROTTLE them. Each fist-clenching moment is another stepping stone for Charles Thomas Tester's development -the crux of the entire piece- and another building block toward the epic climax of the story.

Most of all, I think, I love that the story ends on a note of revelation and reflection, all the more tragic because it comes too late, leaving us ultimately with the desire for redemption but the despair that it may never truly happen.

I'll admit the abrupt ending left me scratching my head at first...
...but after reflecting and letting it all sink in I've realized that it is magnificent. I've also decided that I'm not quite done with this yet.


Even with it's satisfying finale, we are left with open-ended questions. The story obviously doesn't end here, so I'm not finished with it yet. I need to see what happens next. I need to see what happens after that window opens and I need to know what answer -if any- is found through it. So, Mr. LaValle, you might just have to write a whole novel for this magnificent character you've wrought.

The Ballad of Black Tom surprised me with its depth, its character, and the direction it wound up taking ...which brings me to a rather unconventional request. Only after reading this novella, I learned that it's actually a retelling of a story called "The Horror at Red Hook". If you don't know what that is, I beg you, DON'T LOOK IT UP.

Read Ballad first, because it should be approached with an innocent mind and read by one with no idea what to expect because it is a delicious experience and I want you to have that, just like I did.

(If you do know "The Horror at Red Hook" then DEFINITELY read The Ballad of Black Tom, because everyone says it is infinitely better.)

What are some of the best developed characters you've encountered?


  1. "Detestable characters slither though..." love that line! This does sound very dark but kinda gripping as well. The setting- 1930's NY- and the character development sound pretty good . You have me curious now about that ending!

  2. this sounds pretty unique I don't think I have read not even close similar combination. The time period, the racism and magic! And I'm a sucker for any book with a great character development.! AND I should be back at reading dark urban fantasy!! Was always my favorite genre until I fell in that bottomless reading slump :( Great review Amanda!

    1. Thanks! Reading slumps are THE WORST, aren't they? >_<
      Read it, read it, READ IT. It's so interesting and it sucked me in! Totally worth the read.