The story of The Kingdoms of Savannah, by George Dawes Green, begins with a murder and a mysterious disappearance from a dive bar, with wonderful hints of the supernatural just around the corner in Savannah. Stony, a freelance archeologist, and her drinking buddy Luke, both usually itinerant, are flush enough to have drinks in a dive bar, thanks to Stony's latest find. But strange men appear to ask questions, and Stony disappears, and Luke is found dead the next day in a property owned by corrupt politician Guzman.
(This is not a spoiler, this is the second sentence of the prologue, creating an intriguing, atmospheric opening.)
So the story hinges on this dramatic mystery: What's become of Stony? What did she find? Who were the goons? How was Luke killed? Is Guzman responsible? and it's all so intriguing, but it takes ages and ages to actually move forward and start solving this. Each scene is atmospheric, taking readers to new places and new subcultures in the city, which I mostly enjoyed. Readers see parties hosted by Savannah society families, meet residents of the homeless encampments and meet shady police and politicians, all with a streak of the supernatural. I liked these scenes, but I also wanted to advance the mystery plot.
Come on! There's been a hugely dramatic murder, kidnapping, and cover-up, with hints of the supernatural, for a really fascinating, tantalizing opener, but then it's followed by these slow scenes of catty family infighting, society snubs, and remembering mean comments from decades ago. The Kingdoms of Savannah started to drag for me here, when scene after scene was a different character saying they're either determined to avenge Luke's murder / they're determined to defend Guzman, while other characters tried to talk them out of their decision. There's a truly massive cast of characters, all with their own interconnections, so it takes a while for everyone in Savannah to announce their side in the investigation and talk trash about the other characters. It makes the city feel full, but it's also hard to keep track of everyone, and also did I mention I was excited for the mystery?
In the meandering middle, the story explores the idea of who is complicit in the darker parts of Savannah's history. It's not really a surprise to readers that the modern wealthy families who came into their money in antebellum Georgia made that wealth from exploitation of slave labour, but it's a reckoning for certain characters. We finally get some action on Stony's mysterious find in the fifth chapter (of five chapters), and it's an exciting conclusion that ties in a few different threads.
Overall, this was a book that I liked, but didn't love. It held my interest while I was reading it, but then I'd think how many meandering Savannah vignettes I'd read without advancing the mystery plotline, and I'd feel frustrated. I think I'd have enjoyed a novel rambling through a Southern Gothic family or novel made up just of scenes of underground Savannah, it was only having a dramatic, tantalizing beginning that frustrated me. It felt like I was reading two mashed-together stories.