Fantasy · Historical Fiction

The Monsters We Defy

This was an impulse grab from the library a week or so ago, and, after finishing it, I am thrilled by that decision. The cover is really eye-catching and after skimming the synopsis, it just felt like it would be different from anything I had really read before…which turned out to be absolutely true. Plus, I really recommend reading the historical information afterwards, as I learned a lot about some of the “real” stories behind the characters that Penelope created/adapted for the novel, including the main character and the Washington DC “race riot” in 1919, as well as information about Black Broadway (U street), and Black youth with albinism being kidnapped and used in circus side-shows. Anyways, there was a lot about this novel that intrigued and entertained, so let me get to the review!

The Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope

“Those in debt are rarely satisfied with the terms of their deals. And those who think they can control the ones who owe them are often surprised.”

Clara Johnson was born with the “gift” of being able to talk to spirits. A gift that saved her a few years ago, when she spent time in jail after the 1919 race “riot” in Washington DC. But one that also haunts her, and has left her with a debt to a particular spirit, an Enigma called The Empress. When The Empress offers to clear her debt if she steals a particular, and very magical, ring from a powerful personage, she takes the risk. However, the task is a pretty big one, so in order to pull of the heist, she gathers a team of others who have debts they too want to be rid of, including an actor who can change his face, a musician whose music has the power to hypnotize, someone who can make people forget short periods of time, and Clara’s roommate, who has no debt to a spirit, but whose previous life in the circus left her with a lot of skills that come in useful in situations of theft. As this team plans their heist, they realize that the conflict over the ring in the spirit world is spilling over in their world, and they must complete their quest not only to get rid of their debts, but to save the entire city.

So yes, I have really never read anything with this setting before. The combination of time period, place and population was completely new to me and I really enjoyed the experience. One, because that’s a favorite part of reading for me, the new and never ending variety of perspectives. And two, because Penelope does a flipping phenomenal job bringing the setting to life. The sense of time and place is so vivid, from the day-to-day life and living arrangements to the clothing to the ways people spend free time to the social and political realities of DC’s Black Broadway. This is historical fiction at its finest, as far as really bringing said history to life for the reader. It is clear that Penelope was invested in the research and getting this history told “right.” And using such a solid historical setting as a basis for this otherwise magical and adventurous story was a fantastically deployed framework.

The magical aspects of this novel were also great. I really enjoyed all the different types of spirits, ghosts, haints, Greys, Enigmas, and the slight differences in their powers and connections to Clara. Paranormal stories of this vibe, that have the slightly spooky *chill* factor, but don’t ever cross the line to truly scary, are my supernatural sweet spot. The idea of spirits granting “charms” with an attendant “trick,” a la the “be careful what you wish for” trope, is not a new concept, but I liked how Penelope used it here. She was so creative with the way they were related, like a darker side of the thing a person wished for. And, of course, I can’t forget the heist. Honestly, I just find heist stories to be fun and entertaining. And this was no different. The reluctant team-up aspects (and attendant unexpected romance – *butterflies*) added a nice extra dash of drama and stakes. Seeing Clara start to bring down some of her walls, making friends with the rest of her team and starting to actually enjoy life, after her traumatic recent past, was lovely character development as well. While I’m on the subject of characters, I also want to recognize Clara’s roommate, Zelda, as my favorite. Ladies that have those swashbuckling vibes are always my favorites.      

This was such a lively and diverting book. I had fun following Clara et al on their magical heist adventures, as they went from teammates to friends and found their way(s) back to the lives they had always hoped to live. The plot and character development were well balanced and paced, and the historical setting was fantastic. Just a really solid read! 

A few standout passages:

“The thing that was coming would play itself out, the way these things always did. Knowing something was going to happen and being able to stop it were two different things.”

“There was something worse than failure – hopelessness. She didn’t want to believe that the hope burgeoning deep in his breast would be for naught. The taste of possible freedom was addictive, but now she wasn’t certain it hadn’t been poison.”

“Life was about surviving, putting one foot in front of the other to make it from day to day. She well knew it could also be about poetry and creativity and purpose. Camaraderie and friendship and love. But those had always seemed like lofty ideas for other people.”

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