Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.

It’s 1925 and Washington’s “Black Broadway” is alight with music, theatre, dance and literary salons. That’s not really Clara Johnson’s world, she likes to keep her head down after everything that’s happened in her past. Plus she has enough to deal with being able to talk to spirits. When a powerful Enigma asks Clara to steal a ring, she sees her chance to rid herself of the bargain she made to save herself.

I’d only recently heard about the Harlem Renaissance, an “intellectual and cultural revival of African American music, dance, art, fashion, literature, theatre, politics and scholarship”, so I loved that this fantasy heist story delved into that world. Many of the characters were real people, and Clara is also based on real young woman, known as the “Sniping Negress”. I liked this idea, that the question of how did she get her freedom required magical influence because otherwise everything was set against her.

Life was about surviving, putting one foot in front of the other to make it from day to day. She well knew it could also be about poetry and creativity and purpose. Camaraderie and friendship and love. But those had always seemed like lofty ideas for other people.

Being the twenties, there’s speakeasies and moonshine, as well as more sedate gatherings of intellectuals. Clara works at The Journal of Negro History, and when a young employee goes missing, she starts to worry. Soon others turn up with their minds gone, and she knows she has to investigate.

While the story shows a positive side to black history, with its huge contribution to the arts, it also follows the darker side we know so well, the people who are so easily overlooked or taken advantage of. That it is all too easy to take a poor black man from his life, without anyone battering an eyelid.

Taking a hold of a man’s destiny is easier when he’s already weakened: isolated, imprisoned, dejected, poor, or separated from his purpose.

It’s a job too big to do on her own, so she entails the help of her flat mate, an albino woman once sold to a circus which gave her amazing acrobatic skills. But when it turns out the job is going to be more dangerous than she thought, her team grows bigger, with a Jazz singer who can influence with his songs, a man who manipulate memories and an old actor who changes faces.

They’ve all got something in common, the deals they made with Enigmas. Every charm comes with a trick, the power you wish for along with a side effect. This is kind of like making a wish with a genie and ending up with some terrible consequences, but at least you get a heads up. In most cases they are so desperate so they don’t think the trick is all that bad until they have a lifetime of it.

The Monsters We Defy is published by Orbit and is available now in paperback and ebook editions. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review.

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