Book name: The Monsters We Defy
Author: Leslye Penelope
Format: Print, ebook, audiobook
Genre: Historical fantasy
Publication Date: 2022
Star Rating: 5/5
There are some books where the author’s cultural history just shines through.
Reading The Monsters We Defy, it felt like I was listening to Leslye Penelope tell the story of generations past.
The Monsters We Defy is described as historical fantasy.
However, the beliefs that go into the making of the story are so widely held within the community it describes that I’m not sure ‘fantasy’ is something they would have agreed with.
Clara Johnson sold her soul to spirits to free herself from prison after killing a detective.
Actually, an Enigma offered to give her a Charm in return for Clara pledging her a debt that she is unlikely to ever repay.
Faced with the death penalty, Clara accepts the Enigma’s offer. She’ll worry about what that means for the rest of her life another day.
Saved from white justice against a woman of colour who killed a policeman, Clara has set about rebuilding her life since then.
She was always able to see and hear spirits. As she grew up, she learnt to keep this to herself. A bizarre parallel life ensued.
Now, Clara has a debt to The Empress. Her Charm is to be able to get people to do things they don’t want to. But she doesn’t use it. She accepts that her debt to The Empress will never be paid.
This infuriates the Enigma.
Others in Clara’s orbit can also commune with spirits and, in the face of awful challenges, have also pledged themselves to Enigmas.
Now, Madame Josephine is wearing a ring of power, and The Empress wants to lay claim to it. She involves Clara, without being honest about how dangerous the ring is.
Clara sees a man die in front of her when he tries to steal the ring. Other Enigmas also want this ring of power.
Clara works with Israel Lee and Jesse Lee, both of whom have Enigma debts, to snatch the ring.
But the ring is fickle, and the other Enigmas are as powerful as The Empress. It can snatch people’s Destinies, leaving them passive and zombie like.
The story is set in 1920s Washington DC. Clara works for an academic trying to publish stories of people of colour. There is an emergent professional and business class among people of colour, plenty of whom are also film stars or musicians.
The scene is a vibrant one, and the story was vividly set. I loved the depth of the setting and how much effort was put in to making it come alive.
Clara was really inspiring. She’s smart and resilient, carrying a heavy burden through her ability to commune with spirits. People often come to seek her help and she never charges anyone for this.
Clara is based on a real person. As I said at the beginning of this review, the cultural history of the people of colour from southern states who make up the central characters in The Monsters We Defy would genuinely have believed in the haints and the other world that Clara refers to as Over There. This gave the story a sincerity that I found deeply moving.
It didn’t feel like fantasy. Absorbed via the point-of-view characters, it felt like a work of realism. But I enjoyed every page, and often labelling of books is a moveable feast that in the end doesn’t really matter very much.
Thank you for reading my review.
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