Serena’s Reivew: “The Monsters We Defy”

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Book: “The Monsters We Defy” by Leslye Penelope

Publishing Info: Orbit, August 2022

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Washington D. C., 1925

Clara Johnson talks to spirits, a gift that saved her during her darkest moments in a Washington D. C. jail. Now a curse that’s left her indebted to the cunning spirit world. So, when the Empress, the powerful spirit who holds her debt, offers her an opportunity to gain her freedom, a desperate Clara seizes the chance. The task: steal a magical ring from the wealthiest woman in the District.

Clara can’t pull off this daring heist alone. She’ll need help from an unlikely team, from a jazz musician capable of hypnotizing with a melody to an aging vaudeville actor who can change his face, to pull off the impossible. But as they encounter increasingly difficult obstacles, a dangerous spirit interferes at every turn. Conflict in the spirit world is leaking into the human one and along D.C’.s legendary Black Broadway, a mystery unfolds—one that not only has repercussions for Clara but all of the city’s residents.

Review: I was super excited when I received a copy of this book from the publisher. Not only is the cover very eye-catching, but it looks to be covering a unique time period and perspective for historical fantasy. I’ve read a million and one Regency fantasy novels (not that I’m complaining, I’ve read three excellent ones just this summer!), but it’s always refreshing to see authors pushing the boundaries on what we expect from this particular sub-genre. On the other hand, heists with a quirky group of people has also been done to death. So….I let’s see what this book had to offer!

Anyone pestered by spirits would be a little testy. And Clara, cursed/gifted with this ability for her entire life, has only barely begun to reign in her fiery temper. But she can’t stop herself from getting involved when people begin to act strangely and then go missing. Together with a band of other magically-afflicted individuals, Clara must work to pull off a heist to steal a magical ring. But the spirits won’t go easy, and they all will need to band together to pull of this feat!

I’ve read several other books by this author before, but they’ve all been second world fantasy, complete with magic systems and long, epic histories of warring gods. So I was curious to see how she would handle this change of pace. However, it is always a bit steadying to go into a new book knowing that, at the very least, the author has the writing chops to pull of her story. Whether this change in subgenre would work or not, I knew that Penelope would craft a well-told, descriptive story. And I was definitely right about that! I really enjoyed this version of Washington, D.C. in the 1920s that she imagined. There was enough recognizable history and culture to center the reader in the setting, but the introduction of magic and cultural folktales layered over it all to bring us something fresh and new.

Clara herself was an excellent character. I enjoyed her spirit (ha, bad pun) and determination to break through all of the barriers placed before her. But as this is a heist story, we, of course, also have a band of other players to follow as well. Penelope did a good job of laying out each of their histories and motivations in such a way that, for the most part, I felt invested in all of their individual outcomes. I will say, my initial reaction to large casts of characters is typically hesitance, as it’s not my preferred reading style. So while I personally wasn’t blown away by all of these characters, the author did a better job than most in introducing them and using them in such a way as to retain my interest.

The author includes an excellent note at the end about the history of the young woman who served as an inspiration for Clara (a young black woman who spent two years in prison for manslaughter after killing a policeman who enter her home and began shooting). She also explains her use of African American folktales through out the story. It was clear that this book was well-researched, and I think it was an exciting new entry of historical fantasy fiction, which, all too often, can begin to blend together with similar-sounding stories.

I’m running a giveaway for an ARC of this book, so don’t for get to enter! The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and ends Aug. 31.

Enter to win!

Rating 8: A fresh, new historical fantasy story that introduces an excellent cast of characters and highlights African American folklore.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Monsters We Defy” is on this Goodreads list: Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2022.

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