by Leslye Penelope
Publication Date: August 9, 2022
I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
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.
While I don’t read too many historicals any more, I have a definite thing for magical ones. And since I loved the author’s previous fantasy series, I was especially curious to see where she would go with this book. Well, my curiousity was well-rewarded. After all, it’s a magical heist novel!
Clara was born with the ability to see spirits which can sometimes be a pain, even when talking about her grandma Mama Octavia who alternately scolds and helps her. But that’s not the only power she had. In desperate circumstances, she made a deal with an Enigma, an otherworldly being who grants Charms – benefits like always being popular or making someone fall back in love with you – that always come with a Trick – like never having anyone like you for yourself or always being dissatisfied with life. Clara’s Trick is that she must help anyone who comes to her for help communicating with the otherworld, something she resents. When a woman asks for help with her son who’s suddenly become listless and unresponsive, Clara is initially inclined to brush it off after trying to help her. But when a young friend at her workplace becomes similarly Afflicted, it soon becomes clear that the Enigmas are involved, and they’ll go to any ends to control the source of the Affliction. But Clara and the Enigma she bargained with aren’t the only ones looking into the mystery, and with rival bootlegging gangs, a famous singer, and a devastatingly handsome jazz player involved, investigating the mystery will be difficult – and possibly fatal.
“Somebody has to try and stop this thing. And you’re not the type to sit around and watch folks suffer without speaking up.”
Clara paused, surprised. “I like to mind my business.”
The ghostly woman snorted. “You mind your business about as well as I cooked.”
Clara is hot-tempered and unafraid to speak her mind – or use her fists, if necessary. But underneath she still harbors a deep vulnerability around being alone and not being enough. It’s one thing to work all day as a typist for a man who’s committed to advancing the Black race, but most of those upper class folks look down on her for her origins and poverty. She’s relentlessly committed to being self-sufficient but also the sort of person who constantly helping other people, even while grumbling about it. I fell in love with her spiky orneriness immediately and got an inordinate amount of joy out of her exasperation and confusion over the group of people who seem insistent on helping her. She may be spearheading this heist, but she can’t do it without their help – or without trusting them.
“All right. But no one else thinks this is getting a little out of hand?”
“What’s wrong with getting out of hand?” Zelda asked, a disturbing gleam in her eye. “In hand is a mighty boring place to be.”
While it’s not a major part of the plot, there is a romantic subplot between Clara and Israel. While initially something about him rubbed me a bit wrong, the teasing way he calls Clara “lioness” and his subsequent actions – and backstory – won me over to his side. He’s not the only well-rounded sided character, though, considering Clara ends up with a team full of folks. Mama Octavia made me bust out laughing several times, and Aristotle and Jesse’s Tricks just about broke my heart. But Zelda! Zelda almost (almost!) surpassed Clara as my favorite character. Clara’s unwanted roommate (a common joke between them is for Clara to ask Zelda when exactly she’s moving out) is also her best and basically only friend, and she was even more of a firecracker than Clara. Raised in the circus because of her albinism, Zelda’s got more tricks up her sleeve than you can imagine and she’s always ready to help Clara out of whatever situation she’s gotten herself in to.
It’s immersive, woven through with African-American folklore, especially wonderful interludes telling various side characters’ backstories. So often those kind of abrupt switches jar me out of a story, but these made it so much richer. Clara’s story is loosely based on a true story, and the cameos from famous African Americans of the time – Langston Hughes absolutely killed me – were nice easter eggs. Between all of this, I was absolutely enthralled. The books that I couldn’t help comparing this to are Allie Therin’s Spellbound, which is also set in the 20s, and Nicole Glover’s The Conductors. The Conductors is much earlier in time, but Hetty also struggles with fitting in with the wealthier Black families around her, and the light emphasis on romance is also similar.
“[Y]ou got something more powerful than stagecraft and illusion. You got a gift, a group of folks willing to help you, and a task worth doing. More than I can say for most.”
Of course, after comparing this book to several of my favorite five star reads, it should be no surprise that I absolutely adored this book. I have no idea if this is a planned series, but I can’t wait to see whatever this author writes next!