Review: The Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope

Review: The Monsters We Defy by Leslye PenelopeThe Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope, L. Penelope
Narrator: Shayna Small
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, magical realism, urban fantasy
Pages: 384
Length: 11 hours and 30 minutes
Published by Orbit on August 9, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

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.

My Review:

This fantastic, marvelous historical fantasy, set in Black Washington DC during the Jazz Age, brings its time, its place and its people to glorious life. It also tells a tale of big thrills, big fears and deep, deep chills. Because under its glitter and walking in its footsteps is a cautionary tale that hovers just at the point where being careful what you wish for drops straight through the trapdoor of some favors come with too high a price.

Clara Johnson was born with the ability to speak to the dead. It’s not a one-way street, because they can speak to her, too. And not just the dead, anyone or anything that exists ‘Over There’ can get her attention – or she can get theirs.

An attention she took advantage of, once upon a time, in order to save her life.

She made a bargain with a being calling herself ‘The Empress’. In return for a literal ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card, Clara made a deal. A deal, like all deals with the enigmas that exist Over There, that left Clara with both a charm and a trick.

The charm she refuses to use or even talk about – after that one and only time it got her out from under a murder charge. The trick, however, is a binding on her soul. Whenever someone asks her for help making contact with the spirits, she has to help. She’s not allowed to take payment for that help, and she’s not permitted to make too strong a case against taking that help to the person who has made the request.

Because the help they ask for will result in that person receiving their own charm, and their own trick. And Clara has learned, to her cost, that in the end neither are worth it. A lesson she should have kept much more firmly in mind as she gets herself deeper into a case that catches her up in a battle that may cost her entire community their souls, their futures, and their destinies.

Escape Rating A+: I know I’m not quite doing this one justice because I loved it so hard. I just want to squee and that’s not terribly informative. But still…SQUEE!

Now that I’ve got that out of my system – a bit – I’ll try to convey some actual information.

The Monsters We Defy combines history, mystery and magical realism into a heist committed by a fascinating assortment of characters on a mission to save themselves, each other, and all their people. And just possibly the world as well.

The historical setting is ripe for this kind of story. On the one hand, there’s the glitter of the Jazz Age. And on the other, the divided reality of the District’s black community, where the ‘Luminous Four Hundred’ holds itself high above the working class and the alley residents, while pretending that the white power brokers who control the rest of the city don’t see everyone who isn’t white as less than the dirt beneath their feet.

It’s not a surprise that someone would take advantage of that situation for their own ends. What makes this book different is that the someone in this case is an enterprising spirit from ‘Over There’ rather than a human from right here.

And into this setting the author puts together one of the most demon-plagued crews to ever even attempt to pull off a heist. All of them, except for Clara’s roommate Zelda, are in debt to one enigma or another in a burden that they wish they could shake. Vaudevillian Aristotle can play any role he wants to or needs to, but is doomed to be invisible when he’s just himself. Musician Israel can hypnotize an individual or a crowd with his music – but no one ever cares about the man who plays it. His cousin Jesse can take anyone’s memories – make them forget an hour or a day – but the woman he loves can never remember him for more than a day.

They all thought they were getting a gift – only to discover that it’s a curse they can’t get rid of. Unless they steal a powerful ring from the most famous and best-protected woman on Black Broadway.

Unless the spirits are playing them all for fools. Again.

It all hinges on Clara, who is tired and world-weary and desperate and determined. She doesn’t believe that she’ll ever have any hope of better, but she’s determined to try for literally everyone else. And the story and her crew ride or die with her – no matter how much or how often she wishes she could do it all alone.

Because the story is told from Clara’s perspective even though it’s not told from inside her head, it was critical that the narrator for the audiobook embody Clara in all of her irascible reluctance to take up this burden she knows is hers. The narrator of the audiobook, Shayna Small, did a fantastic job of both bringing Clara to life AND making sure that the other voices were distinct and in tune with the characters they represented.

And she made me feel the story so hard I yelled at Clara to look before she leaped and think before she acted more than a few times, because I cared and I wanted to warn her SO MUCH. (Luckily I was in the car and no one could hear me.)

I found The Monsters We Defy to be a terrific book about a high-stakes heist committed by a desperate crew that led to a surprising – and delightful – redemptive ending. And the audio was superb.

If you’ve read either Dead, Dead Girls by Nekesa Afia or Bindle Punk Bruja by Desideria Mesa, you’ll love The Monsters We Defy because it’s a bit of both of those books with a super(natural) chunk of T.L. Huchu’s The Library of the Dead‘s “I speak to dead people,” thrown in for extra bodies and high-stakes scary spice!

Review: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

Review: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van PeltRemarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: literary fiction, magical realism, relationship fiction
Pages: 360
Published by Ecco on May 3, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A novel tracing a widow's unlikely connection with a giant Pacific octopus.
After Tova Sullivan's husband died, she began working the night shift at the Sowell Bay Aquarium, mopping floors and tidying up. Keeping busy has always helped her cope, which she's been doing since her eighteen-year-old son, Erik, mysteriously vanished on a boat in Puget Sound over thirty years ago.
Tova becomes acquainted with curmudgeonly Marcellus, a giant Pacific octopus living at the aquarium. Marcellus knows more than anyone can imagine but wouldn't dream of lifting one of his eight arms for his human captors--until he forms a remarkable friendship with Tova.
Ever the detective, Marcellus deduces what happened the night Tova's son disappeared. And now Marcellus must use every trick his old invertebrate body can muster to unearth the truth for her before it's too late.

My Review:

Remarkably Bright Creatures is a story about higher numbered chances than merely second and the long tentacle of coincidence that helps them happen.

Initially, they don’t seem to have much in common. A man whose prime isn’t very prime, who seems to have thrown away all his chances. An aging woman who has lost both her husband and her son, living lonely but determinedly in the house her parents built. And a giant Pacific octopus eking out his final days in the tiny Sowell Bay Aquarium on Puget Sound.

But Marcellus the octopus, whose placard outside his tank lists him as a “remarkably bright creature”, is as clever as he is bright. He’s also an intelligent observer of human behavior and a bit of an escape artist. There isn’t much else to do, all alone in his tank.

So he occasionally squeezes himself out to graze on the sea cucumbers – or even hazard a trip to the staff break room when the smell of leftover Chinese takeaway is too tempting to resist.

Which is how Tova Sullivan finds him, outside of his tank, caught in a tangle of wires and electrical cords and about to suffer what Marcellus calls “The Consequences” of being out of a tank for more than 20 minutes. Which he can calculate.

Marcellus is, after all, a remarkably bright creature.

Tova rescues him from the tangle. Not only that, but she doesn’t report Marcellus nighttime excursions to the aquarium’s director. It’s their little secret and the beginning of their unlikely friendship.

A friendship that ultimately results in both of them achieving the dreams they never admitted that they held. Not even to themselves.

Giant Pacific Octopus at the National Aquarium in Washington DC

Escape Rating A-: This book turned out to be WAY more charming than I expected. It was recommended by someone in my reading group so I was expecting a decent to good read, but this turned out to be just lovely.

This is kind of a quiet story, where things happen slowly and truths emerge over time. To the point where it borders on literary fiction a bit. But instead of being dark and gloomy where nothing happens and everyone argues a lot – which is how I tend to see litfic – the situations all start out a bit gloomy but everyone gets better. Even Marcellus.

At first you kind of wonder how Cameron’s story is going to link up to Tova’s and Marcellus’. And that coming together takes a while and goes off on a couple of tangents as it meanders along. But once it does, it all fits together beautifully.

What holds the story together – besides Marcellus’ tentacles – is Tova. Her son disappeared without a trace when he was just 18. Her husband has passed away. She’s alone – and yet she’s not. She has friends, she has a job, she makes sure she has purpose. And yet she also has concerns about what will happen to her when she can’t live on her own anymore.

Being Tova, she doesn’t wallow. Instead, she takes steps to determine her own future for her own self. In her situation I’d want to be her when I grew up. She’s a character to both admire and empathize with. To the point where we want her to get a better ending than it looks like she’s headed for when the story begins.

Cameron is not initially all that likable. He’s not bad, and he’s taken some seriously rough knocks, but he’s not good at taking responsibility for himself. And at 30 it’s past time he did. He arrives in Sowell Bay searching for his sperm donor in the hopes of a big financial score. He’s doomed to be disappointed – and it’s the making of him.

Marcellus – who is much more present as a character than one might think – is an absolute gem. At the same time, his intellectual presence in the story, his perspective on the events that he helps to bring about, is both fascinating and a bit equivocal. Anyone who wants to believe that all of the thoughts and actions ascribed to Marcellus are in the minds of Tova and Cameron – in the same way that we all believe we know what our pets are thinking when we most likely don’t – the story still works – and works well.

But it’s so much better if you let yourself believe that Marcellus is helping Tova and Cameron all along – and that they are helping him as well.

I enjoyed Remarkably Bright Creatures a whole lot more than I ever expected to. And in that way that when you are conscious of something you suddenly start seeing it everywhere – like getting a new car and being aware of all the cars of the same make and model sharing the road with you – I liked this so much that I started seeing books with octopi characters everywhere. In addition to Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus from a few years ago there’s The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler coming out in October, and Sea Change by Gina Chung next year.

I’m going to hunt me down some more octopi to read about while I look forward to seeing what this author comes up with next!

Review: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

Review: Black Water Sister by Zen ChoBlack Water Sister by Zen Cho
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: magical realism, paranormal, urban fantasy
Pages: 370
Published by Ace Books on May 11, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A reluctant medium discovers the ties that bind can unleash a dangerous power in this compelling Malaysian-set contemporary fantasy.
Jessamyn Teoh is closeted, broke and moving back to Malaysia, a country she left when she was a toddler. So when Jess starts hearing voices, she chalks it up to stress. But there's only one voice in her head, and it claims to be the ghost of her estranged grandmother, Ah Ma. In life Ah Ma was a spirit medium, the avatar of a mysterious deity called the Black Water Sister. Now she's determined to settle a score against a gang boss who has offended the god--and she's decided Jess is going to help her do it.
Drawn into a world of gods, ghosts, and family secrets, Jess finds that making deals with capricious spirits is a dangerous business. As Jess fights for retribution for Ah Ma, she'll also need to regain control of her body and destiny. If she fails, the Black Water Sister may finish her off for good.

My Review:

It may be true that happy families are all alike while every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but it’s also true that, at least in fiction, all intrusive families are somewhat alike.

But Jess’ family isn’t quite like all the other intrusive families. Not that it isn’t very like them in a number of ways, but there’s one aspect that is definitely unique to them. Or one intrusion that’s unique to them, anyway.

Jess starts hearing voices. Well, specifically one voice, that of her recently deceased grandmother Ah Ma. Now that Jess and her family have moved back to Penang, her late grandmother has decided that Jess is the member of the family who can help her handle her unfinished business in this world so that she can move on to the next.

Ah Ma is living inside Jess’ head, sometimes taking over Jess’ body, and generally poking her ghostly nose into all of Jess’ business in order to make sure that Jess finishes up all of hers.

And that’s where the family secrets start, let’s call it manifesting, all over Penang and all over Jess’ currently drifting life.

Ah Ma needs to pull off one last score against a gangster – who she declares is not merely her biggest enemy but also the enemy of the god that Ah Ma was a medium for during her life. A duty she plans to pass on to Jess, whether Jess wants it or not.

But as Jess does her best to hold firm against the more extreme parts of her grandmother’s agenda – such as Ah Ma’s attempt to murder the gangster’s son using Jess’ hands as the weapon. Ah Ma knows that she herself is out of reach of Earthly justice, but her assertions that her god will protect Jess from the same don’t have nearly the same reassuring effect on Jess.

Along the way, Jess learns more than she bargained for about the real reason behind her family’s move from Malaysia to the U.S. And she comes to understand just what her mother has been trying to protect her from all these years.

And that none of it is exactly what any of them thought.

Escape Rating B: This is very much one of those mixed feelings reviews. On the one hand, there is SO MUCH to love about this story. And on the other hand, there are the trigger warnings. Some people will be disturbed by the abuse and the violence that her grandmother suffered as a young woman, and that Ah Ma enters the service of the god in order to get her revenge. A revenge that Black Water Sister is willing to grant her because she suffered the same thing in her life. Which also says important things about the utter, horrific pervasiveness of violence against women throughout history.

While those experiences were both terrible, but unfortunately all too historically plausible. The way that they are revealed to Jess, as dreams and nightmares sent by both vengeful female spirits, is also manipulative and abusive in its own way.

I also have to say that the extreme intrusiveness of Jess’ family, and what she feels as her lifelong servitude to her parents, are triggers for me, to the point where the constant overshadowing of Jess’ entire life by her family almost forces her to live in constant self-repression in order to not upset anyone about anything, is difficult for me to read.

From a certain perspective, her Ah Ma’s manipulations to force Jess into the same servitude to Black Water Sister that Ah Ma chose willingly is just a continuation of Jess’ extreme self-effacement. Almost to the point of self-erasure. That Jess has kept as much of her true self hidden as she has, and that she still demonstrably loves her family very much, makes her a compelling character who is just hard for me to read.

The author does a fantastic job of exploring and capturing the beauty of not just the place where the story is set, but also its culture and its history is marvelous. Using Jess as the outsider/insider who is remembering and rediscovering her heritage and her family’s history lets the reader immerse themselves along with her.

A part of me wants to call Black Water Sister a magical realism type of fantasy. There is magic in the world that in this particular story uses humans as its avatars to let it act on the world. Jess, when either Ah Ma or Black Water Sister is using her body to wreck their own revenge, is able to see all the gods and spirits that inhabit this place that feels familiar and yet isn’t quite the place her heart calls home.

Another perspective would be that it’s really humans doing everything all along, and yet, from Jess’ god-enhanced perspective, it’s clear that there is way more under the surface than is dreamt of in any Westernized philosophy. And that’s it’s all real, and that it all seems to want revenge.

This also reminds me more than a bit of Nothing But Blackened Teeth, not in that book’s horror aspects but in the way that the queer outsider is the person who is able to see the ghosts and spirits who move so much of the action and so many of the humans. There’s also a bit of, oddly enough, Dragon Age: Origins in the way that Ah Ma has given herself to Black Water Sister as an agent of their mutual revenge in much the same way that Flemeth merges with the goddess Mythal. And that the need for women to find supernatural assistance to avenge themselves on the men who have abused them feels universal.

In the end, the secrets that have been hidden and the revenge that is sought are all for very human reasons. But sometimes, even gods, especially gods that used to be humans, need a very human thing called closure.

Review: Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune

Review: Under the Whispering Door by TJ KluneUnder the Whispering Door by T.J. Klune
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, magical realism, paranormal, relationship fiction
Pages: 373
Published by Tor Books on September 21, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

When a reaper comes to collect Wallace Price from his own funeral, Wallace suspects he really might be dead.
Instead of leading him directly to the afterlife, the reaper takes him to a small village. On the outskirts, off the path through the woods, tucked between mountains, is a particular tea shop, run by a man named Hugo. Hugo is the tea shop's owner to locals and the ferryman to souls who need to cross over.
But Wallace isn't ready to abandon the life he barely lived. With Hugo's help he finally starts to learn about all the things he missed in life.
When the Manager, a curious and powerful being, arrives at the tea shop and gives Wallace one week to cross over, Wallace sets about living a lifetime in seven days.
Under the Whispering Door is a contemporary fantasy about a ghost who refuses to cross over and the ferryman he falls in love with.

My Review:

To paraphrase a classic that isn’t nearly as different as you’d think, Wallace Price was dead: to begin with. He was also an asshole.

The first condition is beyond Wallace’s own ability to change. The second, surprisingly, not so much. But unlike Scrooge’s situation, the spirits aren’t capable of doing anything to change it, and it’s going to take a whole lot more than one single night.

I know that Scrooge isn’t the one who dies in A Christmas Carol, but he was certainly headed down that road before the spirits staged their one-night intervention. The parallels are way closer than I was expecting.

Because the story about what’s behind the whispering door – not exactly under because the door is on the ceiling – is definitely a redemption story. It’s just that this redemption takes place after Wallace Price has already died. Even if he initially doesn’t want to admit it. Or accept it.

The purpose of Charon’s Crossing Tea and Treats is all about that acceptance. The redemption appears to be optional, but the acceptance, that’s required. Charon’s Crossing, pun and all, is a waystation for people who have died but who just aren’t ready to move on to their next great adventure – or the peace of the hereafter – or whatever happens next.

They need time, and that’s just what the people who make up Charon’s Crossing are there to provide. Hugo the ferryman, Mei the reaper, the irreverent Nelson who gives lessons in being dead, and Apollo the dog who won’t leave his person, not even after he’s supposed to have gone to the Rainbow Bridge, or wherever it is that good dogs go. And Apollo was, and is, a very good dog indeed.

The late and completely unlamented Wallace Price, one of the founding partners of the white shoe law firm Moore, Price, Hernandez & Worthington, is brought to Charon’s Crossing by Mei the Reaper on her first solo gig. He doesn’t want to go, he doesn’t want to be there, and he doesn’t want to accept that he’s dead.  He’s unwilling to admit that the life he barely lived is already over. And he’s still angry that his funeral was so poorly, and disrespectfully, attended.

But he’ll have all the time he needs at the tea shop to get over who he used to and learn to be who he should have been. Or so he thinks. And so Hugo hopes. Until the mysterious Manager comes to tell him that the found family he’s become a part of isn’t meant for him – no matter how much they’d love for him to stay.

So Wallace plans on one last hurrah. One final pleading before a being who is judge, jury and from a certain perspective, executioner. And it’s a doozy. The question is whether it’s enough.

Escape Rating A: Under the Whispering Door is a lovely book about the power of change and the two steps forward one step back of the process of making the attempt to change. In the end, I loved all the characters and especially the story about how they made their little found family pretty much in spite of themselves.

This is also one of the best “sad fluff” books you could possibly ever find, even though it does surprisingly manage to have a happy ending. It’s just that one person’s happy can also be another person’s letting go.

But I almost didn’t finish this. Actually the first time I read it I mostly skimmed it because the first third is hard going. Wallace Price really, truly is an asshole. Which means that the way the story is centered around him is a bit of a slog, because he’s more than a bit of a slog. And a bastard, and definitely a bastard.

To the point where the best parts of that first third are when Mei and/or Nelson get the best of him. Because Wallace SO deserves it.

So that first time I skimmed the book I missed a lot of what made it so good because I found Wallace so hard to care about. Or be in the company of. But when the audio popped up on NetGalley I decided to give it another try. And this time I fell kind of in love with the residents of Charon’s Crossing and Wallace’s redemptive story. Wallace may not just be “mostly dead” but actually all the way dead, but he still manages to get better. And isn’t that a trick and a half!

And in audio that slow but steady upwards climb captivated me and I loved every minute. Especially the times when Wallace really screws up – or gets screwed up and over – and I was laughing so hard I had to pull the car over to wipe my eyes.

One final set of thoughts. This is being marketed as fantasy because of the author’s previous work in the genre, like the lovely House in the Cerulean Sea, and because of the “I help dead people” angle. But if this is fantasy, it’s mostly of the magical realism variety, like the now-old movie Heaven Can Wait or the even older Ghost and Mrs. Muir. It’s fantastic but not fantasy as the term is generally used.

Instead, it’s more about Wallace’s developing relationships with his found family, the town that Charon’s Crossing is located in, and his growing romantic attachment to Hugo – and very much vice-versa.

At the same time, it feels like the story hints at deeper roots to the whole setup of the ferrymen and ferrywomen (ferrypersons?) and the somewhat supernatural organization that recruits them. The mysterious Manager reads like an avatar for the Horned God of ancient myth, someone like Cernunnos or Herne the Hunter or the Green Man or even Pan. But that’s all just a hint and if you squint you might miss it.

Besides those two movies, there are other stories that touch of bits of what this does. Peter S. Beagle’s classic A Fine and  Private Place is another story about redemption after death and living the life you’ve got to the fullest.

And I believe that Hugo, the ferryman and expert tea advocate, would have a great deal to share with Sibling Dex, the tea monk of Becky Chambers’ marvelous A Psalm for the Wild-Built, as both their stories, in spite of the separation of millennia, are about the joy of found families and the surprising power of a good, well-chosen blend of tea.

Review: The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers

Review: The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance SayersThe Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, historical fiction, historical mystery, magical realism
Pages: 448
Published by Redhook on March 23, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Paris, 1925: To enter the Secret Circus is to enter a world of wonder-a world where women tame magnificent beasts, carousels take you back in time, and trapeze artists float across the sky. But each daring feat has a cost. Bound to her family's strange and magical circus, it's the only world Cecile Cabot knows-until she meets a charismatic young painter and embarks on a passionate love affair that could cost her everything.
Virginia, 2005: Lara Barnes is on top of the world-until her fiancé disappears on their wedding day. Desperate, her search for answers unexpectedly leads to her great-grandmother's journals and sweeps her into the story of a dark circus and a generational curse that has been claiming payment from the women in her family for generations.

My Review:

They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In The Ladies of the Secret Circus, the road FROM hell is paved with exactly the same stuff.

It all begins with a mystery, even if that mystery is not the one that anyone in tiny Kerrigan Falls, Virginia believes that it is.

But then, nothing about this story turns out to be exactly what people believe it is, especially not Le Cirque Secret and its mysterious proprietor.

Lara Barnes thinks the story begins with the disappearance of her fiancé on the morning of their wedding. But Todd’s abandoned car isn’t the beginning of the story – not even for Lara.

Because once upon a time, when Lara was a little girl, she received a pair of mysterious visitors. The daemon Althacazar and his daughter Cecile. They’ve come to see if Lara might be the one. The one to fix the mistakes that Althacazar made, not out of evil in spite of his position as a powerful prince of Hell, but out of a love that should never have been.

A love that gave birth to Cecile, her sister Esme, and the magical, mysterious, compelling Le Cirque Secret amid the glitter and glamour of Jazz Age Paris. A love that eventually gave birth to Lara herself, and to the hatred and obsession that has followed her, her family, and even the circus itself.

A hate that has finally come to get her – unless she manages to get it first.

Escape Rating A+: This story flies on a trapeze over the haunted crossroads where timeslip fiction turns into historical fiction, and the paranormal bleeds into dark fantasy, with hellhounds patrolling on all sides.

It’s a story about love, obsession and daemons. And it’s a story about a father trying to do his best for his daughters and failing miserably, even though he’s one of the great princes of Hell.

Part of what’s so fascinating about The Ladies of the Secret Circus is just how many different kinds of stories it manages to tell – all at the same time!

There’s the mystery of the disappearance, which turns into the mysteries of the disappearances, plural. There’s the magical realism bit about Lara’s, and her mother Audrey’s, ability to do magic. Which morphs into the big scary paranormal horror-adjacent element of the Le Cirque Secret, its condemned performers and its mysterious, daemonic owner and master of ceremonies.

Then there’s the timeslip bits, where artifacts from 1920s Paris seem to slip through to 2005 Virginia, and where Lara translates what turns out to be her great-grandmother’s diary, and suddenly we’re there in Jazz Age Paris watching the tragedy unfold.

(This bit that took me way back to a book I read nearly ten years ago, The Bones of Paris by Laurie R. King. They both have that same sense of everything winding down and the crash coming even though they are different crashes.)

And the story just keeps spinning, like Cecile’s circus act, floating in mid air with magic and no net whatsoever. Until it all falls back into the present, and we – and Lara – finally discover what’s really been going on all along.

That there was a price to be paid for the magic, and for Althacazar’s original mistake so long ago. A price that Lara believes she’s going to have to pay. And so she does, just not in the way that she originally thought. A price that she discovers is much, much too high.

But that’s so often true when it comes to Althacazar. His gifts – and his mistakes – always cost more than anyone planned on. Including himself.

Readers who love stories where all the genres are bent to the point that they whirl around faster than the eye can see are going to love this book. And be captivated by the spell of Le Cirque Secret.

Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuireEvery Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children #1) by Seanan McGuire
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, magical realism, mystery, urban fantasy
Series: Wayward Children #1
Pages: 173
Published by Tordotcom on April 5, 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward ChildrenNo SolicitationsNo VisitorsNo Quests
Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere... else.
But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.
Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced... they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.
But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.
No matter the cost.

My Review:

What happens AFTER someone comes back from Narnia? Peter and Susan and Edmund and Lucy got off really, really easy when they came back through the wardrobe. (Well, Lucy didn’t – at first) But after years of growing up in Narnia and becoming kings and queens and having all sorts of adventures, when they popped back through the wardrobe at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe they all seem to have gone back to being their original ages without much peering back through that looking glass.

The children who are sent to Eleanor West’s boarding school for wayward children aren’t quite like the ones who went to Narnia and returned seemingly unscathed if not completely unchanged. These children, like Eleanor herself once upon a time, found their way through a doorway, a wardrobe or a portal that was meant just for them, taking them to a place that their hearts and souls knew as home.

But their homes spit them back out again, ejected them back into our so-called “real” world, into a place where they no longer fit. And since they were children, back to parents who could not believe the stories their children told about the places that they had been and the things that they had done.

Parents who were certain that their children could be “fixed”. That with enough time and therapy – and even medications – their “real” children would return to them.

Nancy is the latest of Eleanor West’s wayward children. She spent years in the lands of the dead – and she wants to go back. Just as the other children at Miss West’s want to go back to their own worlds.

Some of them might manage it. But lightning seldom strikes the same place twice. Some of the children will have to grow up and learn to live in the world that gave them birth rather than the one their hearts call home.

Unless one of the other children kills them first.

Escape Rating A: Seanan McGuire is an author who has been recommended to me any number of times. One of my friends absolutely adores her work. But I bounced hard off of her October Daye series years ago and just never managed to get into anything else of hers despite repeated attempts.

But the latest book in this series, Across the Green Grass Fields, popped up on another list of “must reads” for this year, and this week went to overcommitment hell in a handcart, so I needed something relatively short, and I decided to try one more time. I don’t know how many attempts this makes, but whatever it is it was finally the charm.

Every Heart a Doorway sits at a very creepy corner between urban fantasy, mystery, dark fantasy and magical realism, imbued where snarkitude has blended with the macabre in a way that left me half expecting to find Wednesday Addams pulling the strings and telling the über-chilling campfire stories.

At the same time, it felt like an inside out version of Marie Brennan’s Driftwood, where instead of remnants of dead worlds crashing together it’s a story about lost refugees from closed worlds clinging together in all-too-frequently manic desperation.

To make the story even more compelling, on top of this marvelous creation, this place where children who have “seen the elephant” or whatever perspective-altering strange and terrible wonder applies to the world they visited, we have a murder mystery. Someone is killing the children, and it’s up to those few among them who have been, not to bright and happy worlds but rather to somber underworlds, to find the killer among them before it’s too late.

And it’s utterly marvelous every single step of the way.

I’ll be back to see who next comes to Miss West’s the next time I need a short book to take me out of whatever. Because this series is a portal to a fantastic world all by itself. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s Down Among the Sticks and Bones the next time I want to step through that door.

Review: Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

Review: Conjure Women by Afia AtakoraConjure Women by Afia Atakora
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, magical realism
Pages: 400
Published by Random House on April 7, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A mother and daughter with a shared talent for healing—and for the conjuring of curses—are at the heart of this dazzling first novel
Conjure Women is a sweeping story that brings the world of the South before and after the Civil War vividly to life. Spanning eras and generations, it tells of the lives of three unforgettable women: Miss May Belle, a wise healing woman; her precocious and observant daughter Rue, who is reluctant to follow in her mother's footsteps as a midwife; and their master's daughter Varina. The secrets and bonds among these women and their community come to a head at the beginning of a war and at the birth of an accursed child, who sets the townspeople alight with fear and a spreading superstition that threatens their newly won, tenuous freedom.
Magnificently written, brilliantly researched, richly imagined, Conjure Women moves back and forth in time to tell the haunting story of Rue, Varina, and May Belle, their passions and friendships, and the lengths they will go to save themselves and those they love.

My Review:

The story of Conjure Women is the story of Miss Rue, born in slavery to the healing woman – or conjure woman – Miss May Belle and her man, a slave on the next plantation over.

Through the entire story Rue is one who stands tall – even when she is bowed down by trauma, grief or fear. But there is plenty of that fear and it shadows the whole story. Everything Rue has, everything she does, is conditional – and she knows it.

She can be sold at any time – and very nearly is. She can be beaten at the owner’s whim. Her dad is killed at the owner’s whim for a crime he did not commit, because the white girl who is both Rue’s friend and her enemy carelessly mentions his name when her father is looking for someone to blame for her out-of-wedlock pregnancy.

Even after the war, when she and her people are not merely free but temporarily ignored by the whites that surround their tiny, self-sufficient village, she knows that their freedom and prosperity is contingent on whites not stumbling over them. A contingency with a life measured in months.

And yet, in spite of everything that hangs over Rue’s life, this is a story of living. Of living through adversity, heartbreak and even despair. But of making a life that is more than mere survival.

It just takes a LOT of hard work. And a bit of conjuring. Perhaps just a bit too much conjuring. Because in Rue’s attempts to save what she can, she very nearly destroys what she loves most.

Escape Rating A: Conjure Women is Rue’s story, Rue and her mother Miss May Belle are the conjure women of the title. But, it begins with the boy, Bean, and ends with him, too. And isn’t that generally the way of things?

The story slips a bit back and forth in time as we follow Rue from her childhood in slaverytime to her adolescence in wartime and eventually her heartbreaking experiences in freedomtime. But we don’t experience her life in order. Rather, the times are linked by events and memories, and lead forward and backward and in the middle again as Rue’s thoughts travel from childhood to tragedy to hope to heartbreak to childhood until the ending – which wraps its way obliquely around to the beginning – and to Bean.

Sometimes those transitions are a bit jarring, and it can take the reader a bit to figure out how the story got to the place it suddenly is. But in the end it all does flow together, as coherent and as disjointed as memory.

In the end, Conjure Women is a compelling, complicated and frequently uncomfortable book. Rue is a character that readers are compelled to follow, as she is a mass of contradictions and insecurities doing her best to survive and even thrive in a world that has declared that she is less than nothing.

It’s Rue’s responsibility and duty as the healer to take care of her people and keep them healthy and safe, just as her mother did before her. No matter how often she feels inadequate to the task. No matter that they love her when she heals their ills but hate and fear her when she fails. Nor does it matter, as it did with her mother before her, that in slaverytime her task of keeping them healthy served the purpose of a master who wanted to get the maximum amount of work out of them for the minimum of expenditure.

No matter how many lies she has to tell. To her mother, to her people – and to herself. Feeling with her as we see the price she has to pay – and keep paying – is what makes her a character that carries the reader through this marvelous book. As she carried so many others.

Reviewer’s Note: Fiction is the lie that tells the truth. This work of fiction, created as a beautifully written combination of first-person accounts and historical documentation, tells a truth that we as Americans don’t want to see. That slavery was “a curse to the whites as well as to the blacks,” as Harriet Jacobs said in her autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. And that the hatred on the faces of the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, because they believe in everything that the last four years have stood for, are the spiritual descendants of the hatred on the faces hidden under the post-Civil War masks of the KKK who haunt the later chapters of this story. As much as we don’t want to admit it, the haters are every bit as much a part of this country, every bit as much a representation of who we really are, as those who are doing their damnedest to make the arc of our history bend towards the justice for all that is espoused in the Pledge of Allegiance.

I didn’t factor in just how difficult it would be to sit down and compose this review just after the inauguration ceremony finished. I also can’t help but think it’s important and significant that Amanda Gorman, the National Youth Poet Laureate who read her poem, “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s inauguration could be Rue’s (however many greats) granddaughter. And that Rue would never have imagined this day to be possible from the perspective of her own life, even by the time she died at the book’s end.

This book was marvelous from beginning to end – and so was that poem.

Review: Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

Review: Passing Strange by Ellen KlagesPassing Strange by Ellen Klages
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fantasy, historical fiction, LGBT, magical realism
Pages: 220
Published by Tor.com on January 24, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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San Francisco in 1940 is a haven for the unconventional. Tourists flock to the cities within the city: the Magic City of the World's Fair on an island created of artifice and illusion; the forbidden city of Chinatown, a separate, alien world of exotic food and nightclubs that offer "authentic" experiences, straight from the pages of the pulps; and the twilight world of forbidden love, where outcasts from conventional society can meet.

Six women find their lives as tangled with each other's as they are with the city they call home. They discover love and danger on the borders where magic, science, and art intersect.

Inspired by the pulps, film noir, and screwball comedy, Passing Strange is a story as unusual and complex as San Francisco itself from World Fantasy Award winning author Ellen Klages.

My Review:

This is a short, sweet, lovely and magical story that tells its tale by going full circle. It starts in the present, goes back in time to show how that present came to be, and then returns to the present to explore the ultimate result of those past events.

And it’s absolutely beautiful in its telling.

It’s also a story about San Francisco as a liminal place, a city that is the threshold of many times and places and states and statuses without being a part of any of them. Or being a part of all of them, as the case may be. (New Orleans feels like another such place, which may be why so many urban and/or dark fantasy stories are set there)

There are multiple interstices in the San Francisco of 1940, where the bulk of the story, its past, are set. 1940 was, of course, the eve of World War II in the United States, while the war was already fully engaged elsewhere. History stood on a threshold. San Francisco’s own history also seems to be on a threshold of another kind, as the Great Fire of 1906 is still within living memory but is fading in the city’s consciousness as the coming war takes its place.

San Francisco itself is always on a threshold, as a port city and gateway between the East and the West. It’s population occupies multiple thresholds, as the upper-crust denizens of Nob Hill and the densely packed citizens of Chinatown both do and don’t live in the same city – with the tourists in the middle looking to view the exotic sites on all sides.

The characters of this story are also liminal. They are living on thresholds between respectability and what that time and place referred to as “deviance”. They all make their living on the margins of their world, presenting multiple pretenses to society while only able to be themselves among their own kind.

They are all women who love other women. Some dress as men, some dress as women, some are completely androgynous, and all skirt the edge of the law, sometimes by subterfuge, sometimes by bravado. Always balanced on a knife’s edge between living their authentic lives and a prison sentence.

And this is the story of the last survivor of that strangely beautiful time and place, honoring her promises to those she left behind. Or perhaps they left her. And that’s the beauty, and the magic, of the whole thing.

Escape Rating A: This was lovely, and I wouldn’t have minded a whole lot more of it. But the story that is here is very choice indeed.

I came into Passing Strange both for its historical elements and for its dip into magical realism, as well as for its sidelong glance at the pulps of the Golden Age of SF. And I’m a sucker for the kind of story that comes full circle as this one does.

But I stayed for the characters. The indomitable Helen, the artist Haskel, the writer Emily and the cartomagical Franny. Because it’s their magic, all of them together, that powers the story.

These four women, and two friends who I must admit were not as memorable, form a “Circle” that gives them a place to be themselves and provides support when the world, as it did and does, railed against them for who and what they were. (Not that this has changed nearly enough in the intervening decades.)

On the one hand, this is very definitely a love story. It’s the romance between Haskel and Emily, and displays just how much society was against them as well as just how much they were for each other – and for their circle of friends. Their romance becomes the heart of the magic that creates the mystery.

A mystery that Helen exploits in the present, both to get her revenge on a dealer who swindled a friend, and to make sure that her friends are taken care of, as she promised them so long ago.

With Franny’s magic giving just a hint of just how much that is strange and wonderful still exists in the world. (A bit more of Franny’s story, with a tiny bit more explanation of her map-magic, is, well, not explained exactly but illuminated a bit, in the very short story Caligo Lane, available for a free and quick read at Tor.com.)

In the end, Passing Strange is a haunting thing, a look back on a world that was, a view of a group of women who not merely survived but thrived with a little bit of magic and help from their friends, ending with a surprising bit of epically chilled revenge served with a promise and kiss goodbye.

Review: The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard + Giveaway

Review: The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard + GiveawayThe Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Pages: 304
Published by Melville House Publishing on August 8th 2017
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At seventy-two, Johnny Ribkins shouldn’t have such problems: He’s got one week to come up with the money he stole from his mobster boss or it’s curtains.

What may or may not be useful to Johnny as he flees is that he comes from an African-American family that has been gifted with super powers that are a bit, well, odd. Okay, very odd. For example, Johnny's father could see colors no one else could see. His brother could scale perfectly flat walls. His cousin belches fire. And Johnny himself can make precise maps of any space you name, whether he's been there or not.

In the old days, the Ribkins family tried to apply their gifts to the civil rights effort, calling themselves The Justice Committee. But when their, eh, superpowers proved insufficient, the group fell apart. Out of frustration Johnny and his brother used their talents to stage a series of burglaries, each more daring than the last.

Fast forward a couple decades and Johnny’s on a race against the clock to dig up loot he's stashed all over Florida. His brother is gone, but he has an unexpected sidekick: his brother's daughter, Eloise, who has a special superpower of her own.

Inspired by W. E. B. Du Bois’s famous essay “The Talented Tenth” and fuelled by Ladee Hubbard’s marvelously original imagination, The Talented Ribkins is a big-hearted debut novel about race, class, politics, and the unique gifts that, while they may cause some problems from time to time, bind a family together.

A big-hearted novel about a family with special gifts who sometimes stumble in their efforts to succeed in life, The Talented Ribkins draws on such novels as Toni Morrison’s Sula The Intuitionist to weave themes of race, class, and politics into a wonderfully accomplished and engaging novel.

My Review:

The Talented Ribkins is a lovely novel that surprises its readers in the end, in a way that leaves you shaking your head and re-thinking everything that went before. And then shaking your head again.

The blurb for the book talks about the “superpowers” that all the members of the Ribkins family have been gifted (or cursed) with. And those powers do come into play. But that’s not what the book is “about”, not really.

Instead, The Talented Ribkins is part of the great American road novel tradition. Johnny Ribkins, 72 and some days feeling every bit of it, is on what is probably one last road trip. His ostensible purpose is to dig up all the money he buried all over Florida, in order to pay his self-inflicted debt to someone who Johnny took a few too many years to discover was a really, really bad man.

But while he’s digging up all those little bags of money, he’s really digging up his own past. He starts by visiting his late brother’s old home, only to discover something he never expected. His brother left a child behind, and Eloise, now 13, has her own version of the Ribkins family talent.

Johnny makes maps. Maps to anywhere, from anywhere, whether he’s been there or not. Maps that route around any security, any obstacle, any difficulty whatsoever. His brother Franklin, Eloise’ dad, could climb walls. Any walls. Like Spiderman, but he didn’t need web shooters. His hands were sticky enough all on their own.

Johnny and Franklin made a good living, if not exactly a law-abiding one, as thieves. Until they stole something too hot to handle, and had a falling out. Franklin fell into booze and drugs and it was all over. But now there’s Eloise and her talent for catching anything that anyone throws at her. Or so it seems.

Johnny has a week to dig up all his buried treasure. Eloise needs to learn about her family, and how to handle her rather unusual talent in some way other than letting people throw cans and rocks at her to see her catch them.

But while what we see appears to be a broken down old man on a desperate race to save himself, one last time – nothing is quite as it seems. Not to Eloise, not to Johnny, and definitely not to the reader.

And it’s that twist at the end that makes the story as magical as the Ribkins family talents.

Escape Rating B: I was expecting the story to be more about those Ribkins family talents, those just slightly more than ordinary superpowers. But it really isn’t. The story is really about Johnny digging up his past, both the good and the bad, and letting himself remember who he was and what he tried to do.

Once upon a time, Johnny Ribkins wasn’t the only black man with a little something extra. During the Civil Rights era, Johnny and several like-minded and like-talented friends got together and formed their own version of the Justice League. They called themselves the Justice Committee, and they turned themselves into mostly unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. Not because they did anything flashy, but because Johnny mapped them into the right place at the right time to allow the flashy things to happen. If a speech was important, the Justice Committee conveniently staged a distraction that took the KKK or the cops in their pockets into another direction. Their interventions, mostly non-violent, if occasionally slightly explosive, allowed the Movement’s movers and shakers to get out of the way of lynch mobs and false arrests so they could continue their work.

As Johnny travels with Eloise, he revisits all his former comrades He visits his family, both the one he was born to and the one he made. He’s looking for money he secretly buried with each of them. But his meandering road allows him to explore his own past, and see where it seems his present has changed course.

Until we discover that his present has arrived where it was meant to be all along, just from a slightly different route – not dissimilar to the way that Johnny handles that debt that set him on his long and winding road in the first place.

The story, like Johnny’s route, wanders a bit. The past and present blend together more than a bit, as they do in Johnny’s memories each time he digs up a bag of money, and his own past with it.

There are lots of times when Eloise wonders where they are going, why they seem to be driving in circles around Florida, and what the point of it all is. And sometimes so does the reader.

But in the end it all comes together, and the surprise, like the truth about Eloise’s talent, turns out to be just a bit magical.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I’m giving away a copy of The Talented Ribkins to one lucky US or Canadian commenter.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson WhiteheadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, large print, audiobook
Pages: 306
Published by Doubleday Books on August 2nd 2016
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Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood - where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.
In Whitehead's ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor - engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar's first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven - but the city's placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. Even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman's ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

My Review:

As the saying goes, “fiction is the lie that tells the truth.” The Underground Railroad is definitely that kind of book. These specific events didn’t happen to this particular person, and yet, they all happened, all too frequently, to entirely too many people who had but one thing in common with Cora – the color of their skin.

The story in The Underground Railroad is historical fiction mixed with a bit of magical realism. The real, historical, Underground Railroad was not actually a railroad with rails and steam engines under the ground. The secret train with its hidden stations makes for a powerful metaphor for the vast network of people who helped fugitive slaves escape from the South’s “Peculiar Institution” to the theoretically “free” states of the North. Or to Canada.

Cora’s journey parallels many such real journeys, from the plantation in Georgia where she was born to her long and often desperate flight to freedom, endlessly pursued by the slave-catcher Ridgeway.

As she travels, she finds herself in different places, and in each she discovers a different way in which she, and her people, are not truly free of subjugation and hatred, even if it briefly appears so.

And while, again, the locations and the methods were not exactly in use in each specific place at that particular time, all these things really happened to real people just like Cora.

Her journey is one of continual loss, with the tantalizing hope of freedom always just out of reach, even when it seems most closely present. Her story is often grueling, and frequently heartbreaking. As each chance for hope and happiness is snatched away, we shake our heads and quake in anger, incensed that this is the way it was.

And this is the way, in so many ways, it still is. Slavery casts a long shadow, not just on those who suffered it directly, and those who perpetrated it and tried to perpetuate it, but on everything and everyone it touched. Even today.

Escape Rating B+: This is a hard story to read. We want to say, I want to say, that this treatment was beyond unjust, and that it couldn’t happen here. But we know from history that it most certainly did happen. And that its legacy is still with us.

The perspective in the story is that of Cora, a young woman born in slavery who decides to escape at whatever cost – because even though she knows that even the attempt is a death sentence if she fails – staying on the plantation is a sentence of immediate death in utter torment. There is no sugar-coating of the terrible conditions of slavery. Nor should there be.

But Cora is a difficult protagonist. Her story often feels as if it is being told at one remove. While we are outraged at everything that happens to her, we don’t always feel with her. She seems a bit detached, and so are we. There’s a part of me that believes that her detachment was part of her means of survival, but it makes her a sometimes cold character to follow.

Like the Railroad itself, each stage of her journey is a metaphor for one of the varying, but equally awful, ways that whites thought of blacks in the 19th century and believed that they were finding ways to deal with “the problem”. The most supposedly “enlightened” solutions contained some of the truest brutality, and the most overtly brutal enslaved everyone it touched, white as well as black, but in different ways. Even the “Free” North can’t bear the thought of a self-sufficient black community, as it gives the lie to all the stories they have told.

There are no easy answers in this book. The ending is not a happy redemption of anyone, more like a hope for a possible better future somewhere down the line. But we’re not there yet.

Sometimes a book sweeps all the awards, and one is left wondering why. The Underground Railroad is not one of those books. This is one that will haunt you long after you turn the final page.