Leslye Penelope takes us in the masterful The Monsters We Defy to 1925 Washington DC and its thriving but caste-bound African American elite community where spirits battle for souls. Though I could use the marketing labels (historical fantasy, romance, etc) to describe the story, The Monsters We Defy is so insightful and brilliant that conventional terms fail utterly to convey Penelope’s special vision. She sees this world through multiple layers of spiritual realities that empower and burden each major character, and those spiritual qualities, while being great fun to read about, also work as metaphors for the real struggles people endure to find out who they are. At its center is the bristling and unforgettable Clara Johnson, who has “second sight” into the spiritual world and can summon the “Enigmas” that bestow gifts on humans but always at a heavy price.
The Monsters We Defy evokes the world of prohibition-era Washington DC through the interactions and details of its fascinating characters. Too often, a fictional world comes to life through detailed descriptions of the land, the buildings and other physical characteristics while the characters are fairly flat beings moving through that interesting landscape. Not here. Penelope recreates segregated Washington DC of the 1920s not through elaborate description of the urban setting but through wonderfully vivid evocations of each character and the problems they face. The physical details of the historical period fall into place through a few strokes essential to each scene: a ballroom where the elite of African American society gather, a pool hall, a crowded nightclub, a bootleggers warehouse, the office of a scholarly journal where Clara works, a foul-smelling alley where the poorest people live, and above all the scenes of the Over There where Clara can perceive many types of spirits, the auras surrounding people and the truly dangerous presences she doesn’t dare get close to.
Clara Johnson, with her defiant personality and spiritual sight, marches into one troubling situation after another. But from the moment we meet her through almost every page of this novel, she dominates as few characters can. It is her special gift or burden to be able to summon Enigmas, or powerful spirits that like to play in the human world. When someone comes to Clara for help, she can’t turn them down (a condition of her gift), but it’s often with a sense of dread for the person she’s helping that she lets an Enigma impart a Charm. It’s the Charm that grants the wish the person is looking for, but Clara’s dread comes from her knowledge of the Trick that accompanies it – the heavy price the person will pay.
In one of the opening scenes, a seventeen year-old girl, desperate to get her boyfriend back because she not only loves him for his “perfection” but is also pregnant by him, comes begging Clara for help. When Clara meditates, she sees into the Over There and looks for an Enigma who wants what the petitioner wants in hopes of mitigating the cost of seeking help from this realm. In this case, the Enigma grants the girl’s wish to have her lover return. In fact all men will find her irresistible. The Trick is that all who look upon her will be overcome with desire but none will ever have her heart. In other words, she will lead a life without love, without ever being satisfied with the men who are drawn to her, including her husband to be.
Supporting Clara are the equally vivid and spiritually gifted, or cursed, allies: Israel Lee, a musician whose gift is to be irresistibly attractive at a cost of never feeling appreciated for himself; Aristotle Philemon Bishop, with a gift of changing his appearance and identity to play any role but never able to be who he is; Clara’s grandmother, Mama Octavia, a sternly companionable ghostly presence only Clara can see; Zelda Coleman, an albino capable of the most amazing acrobatic and pick-pocketing feats; Jason Lee who can for brief periods take memories from people’s consciousness. All their skills are needed to confront their adversary: Madame Josephine, the opera singer diva married to a gangster who wears a spiritually powerful ring that becomes a central focus of interest for the story.
The main action begins when a woman comes to Clara for help with her son who has become unresponsive and nearly lifeless, though he still walks about, apparently lost in his own mind. When she tries to summon a spirit that could help him, she finds nothing at all but senses a spiritual presence that is pure malevolence. It turns out that many people are falling into this inert state and after a while disappearing completely. Clearly, a dangerous influence from the spirit world is on the loose, and Clara realizes soon that this force is trying to steal the destinies of its victims. While starting in the African American community of DC, it could quickly spread everywhere. This menace seems focused in that powerful ring worn by Madame Josephine, and it becomes the task of Clara and her allies to get control of this object of power.
The Monsters We Defy is a great blending of realistic characters, spiritualism and magic, fantasy, mystery, a heist story and a strong element of romance. I love it when I encounter a book of a type I don’t often read and get completely carried away with. And The Monsters We Defy is such a book that draws you into a brilliantly recreated historical world that is turned inside out through its powerful spiritual presences. There’s no indication that this is the beginning of a series, but I sure would like to know what happens next in these interesting lives.
I want to thank Orbit and Net Galley for an advance review copy of The Monsters We Defy as the basis for this review, which reflects solely my own opinions.