The Monsters We Defy, Leslye Penelope (Redhook 978-0-316-377911, $17.99, 384pp, tp) August 2022. Cover design by Lisa Marie Pompilio.
Clara Johnson is a short-tempered woman who can see and speak with spirits. While Clara typically offers her services as one-off favors, she is soon approached by a woman whose son has become lifeless. He still breathes and walks, but will not eat unless prompted, and wanders off if not closely watched. Even with her clairvoyant gifts and her grandmother’s guidance, Clara is unsure what is happening. As more people vanish and become Afflicted, she realizes her only answers are Over There, in the spirit world she has sought to avoid most of her life.
So begins a scintillating adventure across DC’s Black Broadway to understand what malevolent spirit is stealing Black people away. Part of the answer lies in a powerful magic ring owned by the wealthiest woman in the District. If Clara can steal the ring away from her and give it to an Enigma, or malevolent spirit, she is indebted to, not only will the kidnappings stop, but she will be released from her debt. The only thing standing in her way are dangerous spirits, mobsters, and the occasionally terrifying upscale party with the District’s bougie Talented Tenth.
The Monsters We Defy is a fantasy heist set in 1925 Washington DC at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. A wonderful mashup of Black history, conjuring, juju, and superstitions create the backbone for the novel’s main conflict. While I was already familiar with much of the folklore that informed Penelope’s work, I thought she did a wonderful job of explaining the simple but strict rules that apply Over There and the real world – Enigmas cannot lie, but they can make the truth seem sweeter than it is. They also tend to approach people in desperate situations – struggling musicians, imprisoned women, or poor people trying to make a living. And most importantly, every Charm, or magical gift, comes with a Trick, or a curse. These cruel exchanges of power are like dealing with the fae – no good comes out of them, and the Tricks always outweigh the Charms.
Despite these threats, I was extremely pleased with how joyful yet stunning a read The Monsters We Defy was. Hope exists just within the grasp of the characters, but the odds are increasingly out of their favor as more spirits pursue the ring. There’s a wonderful amount of Black joy and love in the novel too. While they are surrounded by the threat of police brutality, Ku Klux Klan marches, and the constant threat of angry spirits, there’s always humor and camaraderie within Clara’s team. There’s Aristotle, an older man who can shift his appearance, her roommate Zelda, who has albinism and learned pickpocketing from the circus, Israel Lee, a gorgeous jazz musician who can entice crowds with his music, and Jesse Lee, Israel’s cousin who can make people forget short-term memories. Each of their Tricks (with the exception of Zelda, who knows better than to bargain with Enigmas) sour the effect of their Charms, but they certainly come in handy for the heist.
They’re assembled almost like Avengers, complete with short, tightly-written chapters that describe how they came to the city, and what their ambitions cost them. I enjoyed these chapters’ unique formatting, not only for how they contributed to the fast-paced action, but because they slowly fleshed out the characters’ desires for better lives amidst heartbreaking circumstances. Even Makeda, typically known as Queen of Sheba, gets an origin story. The emotional revelations are just as riveting as the action scenes, and D.C.’s historical drag and ball scene gets some time on paper as well.
Clara’s origin story is legendary and sets the tone for the rest of the novel quite nicely – born near a backcountry, sundown-town crossroad, her birth attracts the attention of the spirits Over There. Imbued with the threat of racial violence in addition to being near a spirit-afflicted fork in the road, her grandmother prays that the spirit world leaves her be. A magic woman herself, Mama Octavia is ever-present in Clara’s life, even after her death. She serves as a mentor and comforting presence, even if she makes Clara look a little insane when she speaks to her. The rest of Clara’s story unravels like a steady spool – we learn that she is a moderately famous local for an unnamed incident. Neighbors call her not-mean but not-so-nice nicknames, and she frequently feels phantom pain in her thigh from shrapnel, though she is uncertain if it is a ghost pain or the real thing. Eventually another woman mentions her legal defense, some her troubled past, and we learn she spent some time in prison before being released.
Penelope has put a tremendous amount of effort into elevating the Black history of DC without sacrificing a well-told story (though I would certainly read a historical novel from her about DC based on the sheer amount of research she evidently conducted). It was almost jarring having read a novel without realizing that Clara Johnson was a real person, based on Clara “Car rie” Minor Johnson, who was jailed for killing a white police officer who stormed into her home during the 1919 Race riots of DC. I think if I had known this tidbit going in, I would have had questions about her portrayal, knowing she was a very real woman who experienced real violence. Whether it was Penelope’s story to tell or not, she certainly gave Clara Johnson a life beyond the horrible incident that happened to her, in addition to making real-world parallels with Breonna Taylor’s death nearly 100 years later. Zelda, the character with albinism who was sold to the circus, is based on a photograph that Penelope found during her research. The novel’s title, too, is based on poet and activist Claude McKay’s poem “If We Must Die”.
The heist itself and the action leading up to it are intense, particularly after realizing that we don’t have insight into everything the team has planned. The motivations for such a dangerous undertaking are extremely personable – it’s not just Clara’s freedom that she is seeking, but the freedom of all the Afflicted. There’s an unexpected romance gently eased into the story as well that also increases the intensity of the heist. The structure of the plot is a nice and unexpected mesh between the mythical hero’s journey, murder mystery novel, heist, and history. It was quite a refreshing read that succeeded in bringing out the best elements of all these subgenres.
The Monsters We Defy is a tale of bargains, heists, and trickery with characters who battle for their destinies against seen and unseen forces.
Maya C. James is a graduate of the Lannan Fellows Program at Georgetown University, and full-time student at Harvard Divinity School. Her work has appeared in Star*Line, Strange Horizons, FIYAH, Soar: For Harriet, and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center Blog, among others. She was recently long listed for the Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages Prize (2019), and featured on a feminist speculative poetry panel at the 2019 CD Wright Women Writer’s Conference. Her work focuses primarily on Afrofuturism, and imagining sustainable futures for at-risk communities. You can find more of her work here, and follow her on Twitter: @mayawritesgood.
This review and more like it in the December 2022 issue of Locus.
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