The Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope

In many ways The Monsters We Defy delivers on its premise: we follow a ‘ragtag’ crew as they prepare and execute a heist to save themselves and their community. It did manage to hold my attention and even delivered some fairly entertaining scenes and/or dazzling descriptions, and I can see this appealing to fans of historical fantasy novels like Libba Bray’s The Diviners or YA books which employ the ragtag group + heist formula, such as Portrait of a Thief or Six of Crows. Sadly, as much as I wanted to love The Monsters We Defy, I found myself wanting more in terms of plot and characters.

Set in 1925 Washington D. C. the novel revolves around Clara Johnson, a woman who is able to commute with the spirits. We know that after a stint in jail Clara is indebted to a spirit and must use her gift to earn back her freedom. This spirit tasks her with a difficult task: she is to steal a magical ring that happens to be in the hands of one of the city’s wealthiest and most connected people. As one can expect, Clara is joined by an ‘unlikely’ x-men-like team: there is the handsome jazz musician who is able to hypnotize others and an elderly actor who can change his appearance. Alongside for the ride is her second command of sorts, who mostly serves the role of the comedic character. Maybe if the dynamics had remained platonic or focused on their banter and friendships I would have found this team more engaging than I actually did. I did not care for the romance, which was very insta-love and induced several eye-rolls on my part ( she is the only one who isn’t smitten by his looks & yadda yadda). The other two people in the team are given tiny backstories but their personalities often were reduced to how they were different from others (the actor is queer, clara’s friend is a person with albinism). The heist unfolds slowly, and there were several lulls that lessened the overall intensity of the plotline. I also found the inclusion of real-life figures a wee bit cheesy. Still, Leslye Penelope does capture the aesthetics and politics of 1925 Washing D. C., highlighting the experiences of its Black community and, through the actor character, the lgbtq+ community. I also liked the magical aspect of Penelope’s story, which seemed to combine together elements of spirituality with folklore traditions. Overall however I found the characters somewhat paper-thin, and I would have preferred a darker tone or a less binary view of good/evil.

This was a fairly engaging read but I was expecting more of an exciting romp. Nevertheless, it was by no means a bad novel and I would recommend you check out more positive reviews if you are thinking of reading this yourself.

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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