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Book Review: The Conductors by Nicole Glover

Cover of the book The Conductors.

Summary:
Hetty Rhodes was once enslaved, but she ran away with her sister, only her sister was caught while she escaped. She began returning south to try to free her sister, but with her repeated trips became a Conductor on the Underground Railroad, alongside a man named Benjy, using their magic to help others escape. Now the Civil War is over and she and Benjy, who is now her husband, have built a life for themselves in Philadelphia. He’s a blacksmith, she’s a seamstress, and they both solve crimes in their spare time that the white authorities can’t be bothered with. When one of their friends turns up dead in an alley, their investigation takes them throughout Black Philadelphia on a hunt for answers.

Review:
The premise of the worldbuilding for this book reminded me of Thieftaker (review), the first in the Thieftaker Chronicles, which I really enjoyed, only set in the 1800s rather than the 1700s and with a Black woman lead rather than a white man. I say this as I was excited and thought this was a good thing. I remember thinking at the time that I wished there were more alternate history fantasy books and I was excited when the next one I saw brought such diversity to the genre.

I liked the magic in this book. I thought it was a great analogy for colonizing culture versus Black and Indigenous culture. The colonizing culture (Sorcery) requires the use of tools (wands) but the wands make that magic very powerful. The Black and Indigenous cultures use Celestial magic, which doesn’t require tools (they draw sigils instead). It can become very powerful but takes more study and time to become so. Anyone with magic being able to pick up a wand and wreak some havoc with very little knowledge as an analogy for weapons like guns I thought was great.

The book also demonstrates the community the Black folks of Philadelphia built up, which included those who freed themselves by running away, those who were freed by the Civil War, and those who were born free. There is a male/male relationship included among Hetty’s friend group, as well as a woman who experienced infertility and adopted a baby.

What didn’t work for me was the order in which the plot was told. The book starts in post-Civil War Philadelphia with Hetty and Benjy (her husband) working together to solve cases, in much the same way they used to work together as Conductors on the Underground Railroad. How Hetty escaped, met Benjy, and how they worked together as Conductors was told through a series of broken up flashbacks throughout the book. For me, this didn’t work. I was much more heavily invested in the stories being told in the flashbacks than in the present mystery, largely because a lot of the present storytelling relied upon the relationship between Hetty and Benjy and, without the full flashbacks, I had no understanding of the relationship between Hetty and Benjy. I needed to know why they were, for example, married but just for propriety’s sake. I needed to know why they decided to work together as Conductors in the first place. What finally pushed them to get married? I was so confused and felt so much like I was dropped into the middle of a pre-existing world that I went and double-checked to make sure I hadn’t accidentally started with the second book in a series. Characters, even beyond Benjy and Hetty, kept talking about things that had recently happened in a way that felt like they had happened in a previous book. For example, the character who adopted a baby, the line about that felt like how the second book in a series will remind you of what happened in the first with that having been a key plot point in the first. I would say, in general, that for me, everything would have worked better if the first book in the series had been how Hetty and Benjy met and became Conductors together, maybe ending with them solving their first case as investigators after the War. Then this could have been the second book, perhaps with some additional flashbacks to inform us of some things from during the War.

I am sure that there are others that will read that paragraph and think “oh I like that vibe,” and that’s great. I hope this review helps this book find its audience. For me, though, I simply don’t like being dropped into the middle of the story.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 384 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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