The Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope // Book Review

If you’re looking for something spooky for the Halloween season, but you don’t want to read something terribly scary, then this might be the one for you. Clairvoyants, ghosts, magical powers, and a heist all set during the 1920s in Washington D.C.? Yeah, you’re going to want to read this one. Thanks to Orbit Books for a gifted copy of the book.

Here’s more about The Monsters We Defy

A woman able to communicate with spirits must assemble a ragtag crew to pull off a daring heist to save her community in this timely and dazzling historical fantasy that weaves together African American folk magic, history, and romance.

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.

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My thoughts

This was such a cinematic story and something I would love to see made into a movie one day! The characters are so vivid, the ghostly/magical world was so well explained, and the heist of all heists was so action-packed!

The story starts off with our main character, Clara Johnson, being born. She’s born with the amniotic sac still in tact. I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that being born this way already makes you susceptible to the forces beyond the veil and Leslye Penelope starts off with this intriguing fact setting up our main character to see the “Other Side”.

The main character is also loosely based on a real life person named Clara Johnson who shot a police officer during the 1919 riots, being charged for manslaughter only to be retried pleading self-defence after the original judge passed away. I love the deep connection this book has with history and lending this interesting moment in history to set a fantasy book was expertly done. There’s also some appearances from some famous Black writers of the time, which really put a smile on my face.

The story then jumps forward in time to the 1920s where Clara is a young secretary with a little clairvoyant business on the side. She speaks with the spirits (aka Enigmas) and make deals for humans who are desperate for help from the other side. The Enigmas provide Charms to help appease whatever needs the human wants, but the humans are also cursed with a “Trick,” the downside of using the spirits to do their bidding. I absolutely loved this dichotomy between “charm” and “trick” and reminded me a lot of djinn magic where you must be very careful with how you word your wishes and the dire consequences of those wishes.

When a strange affliction affects the people in town, Clara wonders if it may be connected with the spirit world. When she speaks to her Enigma, she finds out that one of the wealthiest gangsters in town may be related to the events. In order to save the afflicted people, she must steal a ring from the gangster’s wife and bring it to her Enigma before they are able to help her. But Clara’s never stolen anything in her life, so she teams up with four other people (three of which owe debts to Enigmas) in hopes of using their Charms and masterfully steal this ring straight off her finger! It’s a heist, everyone!

I think what I really loved the most about this story is that you follow along with these characters and learn so much about them. I love the care Leslye Penelope puts into really bringing these characters to life rather than just writing them off as throwaways. They each have their faults, their Charms and their Tricks, and as the story unfolds more, you see who these characters really are which makes it much more interesting to read!

The heist itself was also fun! This was probably the most action-packed parts of the book and filled with imagery, fight scenes, and delicate suspense! I was definitely on the edge of my seat while I was reading!

Overall, this is a fantastic book that checks off all the boxes. A little action, a little romance, some suspense, characters that you will fall in love with, and a mystery you follow to the very end. I absolutely loved this one and I can’t wait to read what Leslye Penelope has coming out next!

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