Book: The Kingdoms of Savannah
Author: George Dawes Green
Publisher: Celadon Books
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Synopsis: “Savannah may appear to be ‘some town out of a fable,’ with its vine flowers, turreted mansions, and ghost tours that romanticize the city’s history. But look deeper and you’ll uncover secrets, past and present, that tell a more sinister tale. It’s the story at the heart of George Dawes Green’s chilling new novel, The Kingdoms of Savannah.
It begins quietly on a balmy southern night as some locals gather at Bo Peep’s, one of the town’s favorite watering holes. Within an hour, however, a man will be murdered and his companion will be “disappeared.” An unlikely detective, Morgana Musgrove, doyenne of Savannah society, is called upon to unravel the mystery of these crimes. Morgana is an imperious, demanding, and conniving woman, whose four grown children are weary of her schemes. But one by one she inveigles them into helping with her investigation, and soon the family uncovers some terrifying truths – truths that will rock Savannah’s power structure to its core.
Moving from the homeless encampments that rings the city to the stately homes of Savannah’s elite, Green’s novel brilliantly depicts the underbelly of a city with a dark history and the strangely mesmerizing dysfunction of a complex family.”
Review: When I received this ARC, I was pleasantly surprised to find a little blurb by one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, that called this book “The apotheosis of Southern Gothic Noir.” Of course this made me want to read it all the more, and what perfect timing it was, arriving just as I finished In the Shadow of Lightning, so I cracked it open right away. I found myself confused and disappointed, though, by the way Kingdoms played out and I feel fairly well baffled trying to explain the complexities that went wrong in this book. I think the only place to start is with the disparities between the synopsis and the actual book, so let’s begin there.
The back cover refers to Morgana Musgrove as an unlikely detective, leading one to believe this will unfold as a murder mystery should: with a detective, with clues unraveling, and with a clear and defined story arc. What actually happens is far from what I’ve described. While Morgana plays a central role in the first third of the book, she falls into the background as other members of her family take center stage. Told from several differing points of view, we’re lead to believe based on the foundation of the book that while we’d jump between a few different family members, we would ultimately come back to Morgana, the backbone of the story. What actually happens is we get a base that the book is built upon and rather than return to Morgana, we find ourselves spending the majority of the book with her granddaughter Jaq. And that would be okay, given that Jaq is and interesting character with a great point of view, but Jaq is conducting her own investigation into aspects of the events that aren’t really the same as what Morgana is looking into.
The second issue I have with the book is the way in which Morgana speaks. Granted, she’s married into old Savannah money but she actually comes from a small town in Georgia; however, she behaves and speaks in a manner that gives away none of her upbringing. We’re given a small glimpse into what her thought process was when she moved to Savannah and began to infiltrate upper society, but her background remains largely unknown other than a small section that mentions she never retained her country twang, assimilating smoothly into a more Savannah way of speaking. On page 16 (the first chapter still!) we get a flashback from her son, Ransom, into just what kind of absurd creature Morgana truly is and I can’t think of a better way to describe the outlandishness than by simply letting you see for yourself:
“Then at the front steps he has one more memory. Thirteen years old. Standing out here awaiting the carpool to school and daydreaming, when his mother appeared on the balcony. Although it was a bright sunny morning, she was drunk. Clearly she’d been out partying the night before and hadn’t been to bed yet. She began to disparage him in the third person, one of her favorite pastimes. She said, “While the kid dawdles there like an idiot, gathering wool, concocting his little fantasies about how the world should be, the real world keeps marching on, doesn’t it? Clomp clomp clomp, crushing his little dreams. Does he even notice? No, he’s too stupid. Is he going to be a hobo? Well, yes, that’s certain, unless he gets some ambition and starts kiting [sic] checks. Ha ha ha.”
I don’t know about you, but that does not a drunk monologue make.
My third problem with the book are the little tidbits thrown into the plot that seem to surely have somewhere to go but fizzle out without so much as another mention. Some spoiler alerts here, so be warned! As the story progresses, we find that one of the central characters is being held hostage in one of several underground tunnels that were used during prohibition era, tunnels that bootleggers would use to store and transport contraband. The character has been spirited away into the tunnels by a cylindrical tube out in the middle of the woods, but we’re told at a few different places in the story that Morgana’s late husband had relatives who made their money as bootleggers back in the day. This is such an important tidbit of information that Dawes Green spends no less than three different instances describing the ominous door in the basement of the Musgrove home that supposedly leads into these very tunnels – in fact there are other homes with similar doors, though the other home’s doors are rumored to be closed up and filled in. I kept waiting for someone to open the door in the Musgrove basement and find their way down into the tunnels, but after it’s mentioned several times it simply…goes away. We don’t hear of it again and it’s never turned into a distinctive plot point. There are several instances of tidbits of interest dissolving into nothing, leaving me feeling confused as to their purpose and frustrated that they were dangled in front of me for nothing.
The last issue I’m going to mention is the fact that Jaq is Black. There are so few descriptors in this book that when I realized Jaq was a member of the Musgrove family, I found myself flipping back and forth trying to determine if I’d entirely misread every aspect of the Musgroves. Were they actually Black too? Was I misunderstanding that they were a white old money family? It took another one, maybe two, chapters before Jaq’s connection and background were unveiled, which was far too long to go without an understanding of who and what I’m reading. I don’t always need extremely detailed descriptions of characters to feel fulfilled and confident reading a character, but the basics are important especially if you’re going to hinge the entire story on Black history in Savannah – another spoiler, perhaps. I left the book having essentially no idea what any of the characters look like, other than knowing that about halfway through the book it’s mentioned that Ransom, Morgana’s son, has a beard. At that point I was so baffled about what he may or may not look like that the beard fully threw me off and I gave up trying to discern anything about it. Turns out I didn’t need to, as he went the way of Morgana, a central figure in the beginning of the novel who fizzled out about halfway through the book.
There are a lot of twists and turns in Kingdoms, twists and turns we aren’t privy to as readers. When Morgana solves the mystery in the end, it’s a confounding aha moment that ends up being quite the let down. We haven’t seen much of Morgana by the time she reveals how she’s solved the mystery and we’re never really given any specifics as to how she was able to unravel the details. As readers, we’re able to see a lot of what’s going on and make our own deductions, but it’s never made clear how in the world Morgana might have come to the conclusions she makes, and that leaves me disappointed; it takes all the punch out of the ending, to be completely honest. On top of which, we spend the entire book reading whispers of a treasure, a hidden treasure somewhere in Savannah, a treasure so important that people are willing to kill for it. It’s built up and built up and built up in such a way that when it’s revealed and we find it’s not exactly what we’d been expecting or hoping to find, the treasure ends up being quite the let down as well. The fact of the matter is that the treasure reveal should have been the most amazing part of the entire story, the treasure (spoiler alert!!!) is not monetary at all, it’s an archeological finding of an entire free Black colony pre-civil war, living on an island in Savannah. What I love about this treasure story is that it’s actually historically accurate though no one has yet been able to find the archeological remains as the particular island they lived on was a secret and has such been lost to time. It’s likely that with time and money and some high tech ground penetrating radar, the remains could be found, and that’s exactly what happens in Kingdoms. The treasure that everyone is willing to die for is simply the rights to develop crappy condos and apartment buildings on a swampy island in the middle of nowhere. It’s…lacking.
At the end of the book, Dawes Green spends 6 total pages explaining some of the historical facts and significance of some of what he’s written about. Those 6 pages were more interesting to me and, in my opinion, more well written than the entire rest of the book, and I think that’s really something. I love all the details provided in Kingdoms, but at the end of the day in order to tell the story he wanted to tell, I think Kingdoms could have been written completely differently and it would have made a much greater impact. I didn’t leave this book continuing to chew over the details or stew about what did or didn’t go down, I finished it and I put it down, and that’s the mark of a book poorly designed. I have to think, surely there’s no way that Neil Gaiman read this book.
Advice: If you like Southern Gothic Noir fiction, I really don’t think this fits the brief other than it’s set in the old south and includes a murder or two. If you like murder mysteries, this might be something you’d be interested in, but realistically it didn’t satisfy this mystery lover. I think it’s worth the read if it’s given to you for free or if you find it on sale somewhere. Otherwise, pick it up in the bookstore, flip to the back and read the 6 pages that mention the historical accuracies included in it – that should lead you down a rabbit hole of books and topics that would be well worth your time.