Genre: Historical Fantasy
Content warnings: racism, death of a parent, kidnapping, death, murder, violence, references to WWI, miscarriage, reference to sexual assault, homophobia, parental abandonment, colourism, police brutality, references to slavery, incarceration (Please be aware that many triggering depictions are based on real events, prejudices and injustices involving the Black American community.)
Perfect for when you’re in the mood for: taking on spirits and gangsters alike while learning a little history along the way
Some folks say it wasn’t just being born with a caul that made Clara Johnson ornery as a red hornet, it was being born at the crossroads. Her spirit, unlike most, had a choice to make right there at the beginning.
The Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope is a heist novel woven through with threads of magic that reach into the nooks and crannies of 1920s Washington DC. The detail and specificity with which this period is brought to life reflects Penelope’s extensive research (and her author’s note gives readers looking to do their own some helpful starting points). People, places, institutions and social issues that characterised Black American society at the time form the breathing landscape of the story and extend a guiding hand towards its fantasy elements.
The believability of the setting is elevated through Penelope’s tight rein on narrative voice, which she keeps rooted in time and place so that you never question her authority on either. There’s not a loose stitch or fraying seam to be found so contemporary quirks never leak through and sully the narration or dialogue. This is especially apparent in the aside passages, which illuminate character backstories using a tone that stays true to the tradition established in regular chapters while also creating a folktale-like atmosphere. The novelty of the formatting used here is also quite interesting. These passages don’t add to the chapter count, which makes it feel like you’re peering through a window into the past, the effect akin to a sepia filter in a movie flashback.
There ain’t too much about history that survives the telling. Once your time is done and you head Over There, you get to watch the rumors about your life and times turn into lies that turn into myths.
When it comes to characters and their backstories, every heist novel needs a solid central team, and The Monsters We Defy delivers an ensemble that is easy to root for. There’s Clara with her second sight, Zelda with her acrobatic finesse, Aristotle with his glamours, Israel with his hypnotic music and Jesse Lee with the ability to manipulate memory. Each brings a unique energy to the group along with a separate skillset and their own torments. When people start disappearing and the spirit world’s conflict spills into mortal affairs, they’re tasked with stealing a mythical ring from a gangster’s wife. As you’d expect, they take wrong turns and land in sticky situations that put both their talents and faults to the test.
I do think that the romantic subplot between Clara and Israel steamrolls over opportunities to showcase the greater group dynamics with a bit more depth. The silver lining here is that the pair is really cute together. Though they initially appear to be your average cocky-meets-stubborn pairing, they actually communicate very well and show each other genuine kindness. The result is a well-paced relationship that brings out the best in both of them. Israel can be a little hard to like at first (which isn’t helped by Penelope’s use of ‘masculine’ or ‘male beauty’ to describe him – call it a literary ick, but I loathe when authors do this), but he is actually very sweet, making it easier to overlook any irritating descriptors.
The shadows around him, forming him, swelled even more, leaving the tiny closet almost in pitch-darkness except for the sparks from his eyes. “Many would give everything they have for what humans take for granted.”
Worked into the heist is another foundational pillar: magic. It spills out primarily through the existence of a spirit world – layered over our own and inhabited by powerful beings called ‘Enigmas’, ghostly relatives and untethered masses of energy – but it also intersects with rootwork and conjure magic. These magical aspects are all kinds of marvellous and all kinds of frightful, a contrast that manifests in the tried-and-true folklore convention of deals that carry a sting. Using the language of The Monsters We Defy, this means that every ‘Charm’ bestowed upon a person by an Enigma is stained by a ‘Trick’ guaranteed to make them miserable. While the magic, which even incorporates the Queen of Sheba, certainly inspires wonder, its mechanics leave much to be desired. These gaps squander some of its potential and are also the source of many unanswered questions that you’re left with at the end of the book. It’s likely that the ending is fashioned in the shape of an open gash to keep a little mystery alive, but this does leave you feeling like you’ve read the first book in a series that promises a sequel to provide more clarity and up the stakes. Yet I can find nothing to suggest that this is the case.
I would caution away any sticklers for watertight magic systems or perfectly sealed endings, but even with its flaws, The Monsters We Defy is an exciting foray into the past that packs enough mystery and magic to keep you engaged and enough substance to make it worth it. My rating is 4 stars.