bookish review

Review: The Conductors, Nicole Glover

The Conductors by Nicole Glover
eARC received from NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for review
384 pages, historical fantasy/mystery

A compelling debut by a new voice in fantasy fiction, The Conductors features the magic and mystery of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files written with the sensibility and historical setting of Octavia Butler’s Kindred: Introducing Hetty Rhodes, a magic-user and former conductor on the Underground Railroad who now solves crimes in post–Civil War Philadelphia.

As a conductor on the Underground Railroad, Hetty Rhodes helped usher dozens of people north with her wits and magic. Now that the Civil War is over, Hetty and her husband Benjy have settled in Philadelphia, solving murders and mysteries that the white authorities won’t touch. When they find one of their friends slain in an alley, Hetty and Benjy bury the body and set off to find answers. But the secrets and intricate lies of the elites of Black Philadelphia only serve to dredge up more questions. To solve this mystery, they will have to face ugly truths all around them, including the ones about each other.

In this vibrant and original novel, Nicole Glover joins a roster of contemporary writers within fantasy, such as Victor LaValle and Zen Cho, who use speculative fiction to delve into important historical and cultural threads.

The Conductors stalled me for a solid two weeks and I had a hell of a time pinpointing why. There are a lot of great things about this book. The concept is creative and interesting; the summary immediately drew me in. Nicole Glover’s characters are full-fledged and sympathetic. The setting is richly imagined and the characters move about in a complicated and compelling world. In spite of these great elements, however, there were narrative choices that made it hard for me to stay engaged with the central plot.

In the years leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation, Henrietta and Benjamin Rhodes became infamous as conductors on the Underground Railroad, guiding many formerly enslaved people to safety. Hetty went south in search of her missing sister, with Benjy along for the ride, but in the process the couple used their wits and magical prowess to save numerous lives.

The story’s present timeline begins in May 1871 in post-emancipation and post-Civil War Philadelphia. Hetty and Benjy set out to make a life for themselves in the aftermath, working as a dressmaker and blacksmith respectively. Many from their circle of friends would prefer to move on from the past; as reminders of that past, Hetty and Benjy find themselves pushed to the borders of their friend group, respected but struggling to make ends meet and find their place.

On the side, Hetty and Benjy use the skills that made them legendary conductors – both wits and magic – to investigate crimes within their community that would otherwise go unacknowledged. All of the unresolved tensions, secrets, and allegiances of the past linger under the facade of embracing the future… and the past has a nasty habit of showing up unexpected and uninvited, not so easily buried.

The characters and their interpersonal struggles were my favourite part of this novel. Be sure to check out the principal character primer (with beautiful illustrations by Jaria Rambaran) on Nicole Glover’s website. The core group of characters were brought together in Philadelphia through various circumstances: some were born there, others were ferried to safety by the conductors and integrated into the city with the help of the Vigilance Society. There are conflicting opinions, secrets, and heartaches between them – but also a lot of love and respect. My personal favourite was Benjy: a blacksmith by trade, physically strong and imposing, but highly intelligent, methodical, and gentle to those who know him beyond surface level.

Benjy was smart in a way Hetty did not have words for. It was something greater than the books he read, or his ability to craft something out of metal. It was in how he saw the world, not just for what was there but what it could become.

Romance is secondary but adds another interesting thread to the story. Hetty and Benjy have worked together for a decade; they married for convenience at some point along the way, to settle rumours that sprung from an unmarried man and woman traveling alone, and deeply trust one another. Their relationship is complicated by Hetty’s insistence on searching for Esther, by secrets on both sides, and by growing changing feelings.

This is a debut novel – for both the author and the series – but it sort of reads like being dropped into an ongoing series where you haven’t read the first few books. The events of the book start some ten years after Hetty and Benjy’s first trip south as conductors and five years after their first mystery-solving experience in Philadelphia. Some of their past cases are mentioned in the off-hand sort of way you’d bring up events from past books, with a brief summary to refresh the reader’s memory.

It felt like an odd starting point, to be honest: Hetty and Benjy’s transition to post-war life, and learning to apply the skills they honed as conductors to their new circumstances, develops largely off the page or in flashbacks. It was confusing to be introduced to supporting characters by their role in a past case that the reader learns about in passing.

Magic is cleverly woven into the historical setting. Raw magic exists in nature and can be harnessed in various ways. Hetty favours Celestial magic, in which sigils are drawn in the shape of constellations, with endless applications: wards placed around their home to keep out intruders, symbols sewn into clothing to create an available well of power for emergencies, magic to hide in plain sight and conceal oneself from trackers, magic to defend and attack… The other majorly plot-relevant type of magic is Sorcery, which is performed with wand motions and oral spells, and spread throughout the world with European colonizers. Sorcery is the magic of white people, surrounded by laws that aim to prevent anyone else from learning under penalty of death, though some teach it in secret.

The magic Hetty’s mother taught her was a mixture of lore brought over from Africa, from the West Indies, and even from the native peoples of this land… It incorporated traditions that found ways to brew magic with herbs, to enchant candles for protection, to use song to rejuvenate, and most important, to develop sigils from the constellations.

I’m conflicted, though, about the function of magic in the plot. On a character level it’s great; Glover pulls off Hetty and Benjy as magical savants who honed their skills under extreme circumstances. Preparing for the worst saved both their own lives and the lives of their charges many times in the past, and both protagonists continue to work fail-safe spells into their everyday lives, not willing to lose any more than they already have. Their personalities shine through in their spells, from the form their sigils take, to the methods they use to attach their sigils to the physical world.

On a narrative level, though, magic toes the line between characters coming prepared versus a too-convenient plot device, which sapped a lot of the suspense and tension from the mystery side of the plot for me. The sigils and their effects go largely unexplained aside from their physical appearance and immediate use. There are few clear-cut rules or apparent costs.

This was my biggest issue with the book – and the reason it took two weeks to finish. Almost all of the times I got frustrated and put the book down came after Hetty hit a stumbling block and resolved it within the next paragraph or page with a sigil that perfectly fit the problem, no matter how complicated. Putting the book down meant losing momentum with what was already a slow-paced mystery, and once that was gone I struggled to get back in.

Overall, I liked a lot of the individual elements that make up The Conductors: the characters, the magic concept, the historical setting. This is an intriguing historical fantasy that brings together black American history with magical elements that fit seamlessly into the events and lore of the era.

As a mystery, however, I found the plot and execution underwhelming. Not only does this feel like a book further along in an established series, its fantasy and detective elements often clashed rather than complemented, and I had a hard time staying engaged when the protagonists could breeze through complicated problems with a spell.

All things considered, after a week of waffling back and forth I’d rate this as a solid 3.5 stars.

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