Review: The Monsters We Defy - Leslye Penelope
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Published: Redhook/Orbit Publishing, August 2022
My Rating: 5/5 stars
Every so often Redhook, being the huge publisher they are, have a new release fly inexplicably and undeservingly under the radar, and I can’t for the life of me understand why. This year’s candidate is The Monster We Defy as this wonderful historical fantasy debut deserves to be read and loved by so many more people.
In 1925’s Washington DC, we follow Clara Johnson, a woman with an unusual knack for seeing and communing with Enigma’s (ghosts and other spirits from “The Other Side”). What began as a gift to save Clara during her darkest moments before, has turned into a curse as her life becomes entangled and indebted to the spirits of this shadow-world. Desperate for her freedom, in many aspects of her life, Clara turns to a desperate heist to steal an artifact to release her from her curse from the most influential woman in the district. She can’t however, undertake this daring heist alone. Aided by an unlikely team of a jazz musician capable of hypnotizing with a melody, aging vaudeville actor who can change his face and many more, Clara sets off to an adventure filled with ghosts, clairvoyants, tricksters and enemies from our world and the next. What I loved: Honestly; almost everything about this book. Penelope brings to life the 1920’s Washington-setting from page one, seamlessly interweaving it with the magic based in African American mythology. The mixing of real-world cultural mythology into (urban) fantasy is a trope I adore, and it 100% worked for me in this case. The characters felt authentic in their personalities and interactions with each other, the world and the magical elements. Despite being rooted in fantasy, the novel doesn’t shy away from addressing important themes of the time, including colourism, discrimination and police violence against people of colour. It does so seamlessly and (as far as I can tell) accurately, going as far as to have the main character be based on a real historical figure. Despite these heavy themes, I can’t remember the last time I’ve had so much “fun” engaging with them as with this story. Thanks to the vivid characters, the exciting heistplot, the beautiful writing and a story that is filled with hardship but also hope, take it from a heavy lesson in history to an enjoyable tale I couldn’t put down.
What I didn’t love: This is obviously a matter of personal taste, but the way the characters were introduced took some adjusting for me. We meet a large cast of characters, that took some effort to keep track off. Some of them are introduced through an almost introductory chapter on their backstory, almost like a small vignette or short-story within the larger one. It was quite the pacing shift at times, and I can see how it may take some readers out of the story for a bit. It didn’t bother me personally, and pales in comparison to all the praise I’ve already showered this book in.
If you’re looking for an atmospheric Own-Voices (historical) fantasy that is a little bit The Diviners, a little bit The Conductors, and a whole lot of its own unique story; this book deserves a place on you autumn readinglist!
Many thanks to Redhook Publishing for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. You can find this book here on Goodreads.