Book Review

The Monsters We Defy

The Monsters We Defy

  • Author: Leslye Penelope
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Publication Date: August 9, 2022
  • Publisher: Redhook

Thank you to Redhook for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

CONTENT WARNING: death, racism, references to enslavement, violence

Clara Johnson can talk to spirits—a gift that saved her during her darkest moments, now a curse that’s left her indebted to the cunning spirit world. So when a powerful spirit offers her an opportunity to gain her freedom, Clara seizes the chance, no questions asked. The task: Steal a magical ring from the wealthiest woman in the District.

Clara can’t accomplish this daring heist alone. To pull off the impossible, she’ll need the help of an unlikely team: from a handsome jazz musician able to hypnotize with a melody, to an aging actor who can change his face. But as they race along DC’s legendary Black Broadway, conflict in the spirit world begins to lead into the human one—an insidious mystery is unfolding, one that could cost Clara her life and change the fate of an entire city.

There are few things in life I love more than a great book. You know what I mean, right? One that can transport me from my own reality into a completely different place—a time that has passed and a society that I can never have the opportunity to experience. One that makes me want to learn more about the past. This book absolutely did that. While the setting is based in fact, I also learned that the MC is based on a factual person. And the story inspired me to do more research on the Red Summer riots. Her story is really difficult not to compare to more recent events surrounding Breonna Taylor. History really does repeat itself. So I guess this story hit close to home even today, close to 100 years later from when the story is set.

It’s difficult to stuff this book into just one genre. At heart, it’s a heist novel. But it’s also very much historical fiction, with elements of paranormal fantasy, hints of romance, and more than a little mystery. But more than anything else, it’s just … amazing. I couldn’t help but fall in love with the characters and the story, which drew me in within a chapter, and had me eagerly turning pages to learn more about everything. I wanted to know what made each of them tick, and how they were going to pull off this heist.

As an outsider, I found the internal politics within the Black community fascinating. The characters in this story are only a few generations removed from enslavement, and the trauma still echoes strongly amongst them. They’re actively working hard to collectively raise the community, and do good for themselves, working together to achieve things such as creating institutions like banks, colleges, literary and scientific journals, hotels, and unions, since they’re still dealing with plenty of racism from white people, but there’s also colorism within the Black community. On top of all of this, they’re dealing with fresh intergenerational trauma, which is worked into the story as an aspect of paranormal fantasy:

“Any man who’s born and dies a slave has had their destiny damaged irreparably, and that injury is a scar passed on down to their children and their children’s children. Wasn’t only slavers who harmed destinies neither. Evil men and women have done it, good men too, from time to time, either on purpose or on accident.”

The presence of someone like Zelda, who is a Black albino woman, throws a confusion into the mix, since she presents as white but with clearly Black features, and people aren’t quite sure where she fits into the hierarchy. I actually loved Zelda’s character the best out of everyone. As someone who basically grew up in the circus, she doesn’t seem to mind the fact that she doesn’t fit in, and just accepts her … I don’t exactly know the word … otherness, maybe? She’s comfortable being who she is and doesn’t seem to care what anyone else thinks about it. She’s a good foil to Clara, who is completely introverted and much more beaten down by her experiences. Clara is very withdrawn and has a tough protective shell around herself, but as she starts to let others in, the circumstances she’s forced into begin to change her. 

“‘Colored folks don’t often get good choices, do we?’ Clara’s shoulders slumped. She went off to her bedroom knowing her grandmother spoke true. She couldn’t remember the last time she had a good choice.”

There’s also a little discourse about drag balls that occur within the Black community in DC, which I loved reading about. I knew that Black people have long played a major role in the LGBTQ community, but I honestly had no idea that there were Black drag balls going on this far back, although I’m not really surprised. I loved seeing it described in the story and how accepting the characters were about this aspect of society which was not exactly underground, while also not quite mainstream at the time. The 1920s was, after all, a time of social upheaval. 

This is probably one of the best books I’ve read that combines historical fiction with paranormal fantasy, and I’m extremely grateful to have received a copy of it. I really enjoyed how everything was over in together, and while the romance was great, it never overpowered the other elements of the story. This was a beautifully written story, and honestly, it’s a masterpiece. I’ll definitely be checking out Penelope’s other work after how much I loved this one.

People who have sat around with me while I’m reading, especially when there’s a surprising reveal, a shocking plot twist, or an unexpected event often look up in alarm when I gasp audibly. The gasp factor is directly related to the number of times I audibly gasp during a reading, and there isn’t an upper limit.

Gasp Factor: 9

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