Stealing Spirits in Harlem Renaissance DC: The Heist Fantasy of Leslye Penelope’s The Monsters We DefyBooks Reviews Leslye Penelope
There may not be a better setting for a heist novel than the Roaring 20s. In the Prohibition Era, the United States was full of gangsters and speakeasies—and, if looked at through a fantasy lens, undoubtedly magic. The Monsters We Defy takes that setting one step deeper, blending gangsters with the vibrant African American arts scene of the era.
Leslye Penelope sets her story in 1920s Washington D.C., an era of thriving creativity within the African American community. While racial injustice is never far distant from the story, that’s not the point of the story. It’s the idea of building community—and the power of that same community to help a person know exactly who they are—that drives the book’s larger narrative forward. A heist is central to the plot, but the objective isn’t wealth or glory; by the end, the goal is saving the people who are in the thick of this world with them, facing the same prejudice and discrimination, no matter how rich or poor.
Brightly painted with hues and shades of magic, set against a backdrop of jazz music and drag balls, Penelope has taken a specific historical place and moment and made them feel vibrantly alive. She expertly weaves threads of folklore, mythology, and Bible stories into the tapestry of the setting, creating a texture that ties the story to this world and its history while allowing the fantastic to breathe and flow. By giving readers Clara Johnson, a seer born with sight into the Other World who is nevertheless deeply grounded in the material world, she provides the perfect guide into this alternate moment in history.
For years, Clara has pushed others away, unable to trust anyone but herself. She certainly can’t trust the spirits who have her ear, and she’s learned the hard way that she can’t trust people to come through for her. Years before the book’s central plot, during the racially charged civil unrest of 1919 (an actual historical event in which white mobs attacked both the African American community and African American soldiers returning from WWI), Clara gained infamy for defending herself against a white police officer. The texture of that event, and her determination not to think about it, keep the details of what happened hidden until late into the narrative.
Because it occurred, Clara is well-known but kept at arms’-length, especially by the members of the Black upper class. She’s better off alone, she thinks. And yet, she made a spiritual bargain that flies in the face of that. She’s cursed to help any who come to her, free of charge, if they seek to make a bargain with the Enigmas, powerful spirits that can grant changes of fortune if the person is willing to incur a debt.
Clara is intimately familiar with those bargains, and the weight of the debt that comes with them. It’s not helping others that lies heavy on her soul,it’s the knowledge that her “help” comes with such a high cost. Despite her tough exterior, Clara is instantly a protagonist that draws sympathy, that readers will want to win—so long as she’s willing to bear the cost.
Despite her best efforts to live a life without emotional attachments, Clara has been adopted by a former circus performer determined to be her friend. Zelda, a Black woman with albinism, is a startling figure, not just because of her appearance, but because of her willingness to cast aside any pretense of social norms. A con artist, a (very talented) pickpocket, an acrobat, and a martial artist, Zelda sees Clara as a person unwilling to let others be harmed—and a lonely soul. The two are roommates, with a recurring joke that Zelda will move out “tomorrow” if Clara really wants her gone.
When one of the Enigmas, the Empress (who holds Clara’s debt), insists that Clara must retrieve a magical ring for her, she initially refuses. She’s no thief. But as she connects the ring’s power to the disappearances of impoverished people in her community, including a teenage coworker that Clara cares about, she begrudgingly hatches a plan. She’ll need Zelda’s help, but also the assistance of some of the others indebted to the spirits: Aristotle (a man who can change his appearance at will, but who is rendered invisible when he’s himself), Israel (a bandleader who’s the talk of the town due to his own magical charm, but is idolized instead of considered a friend), and Jesse Lee (who can manipulate memories, but who can never be remembered by the one woman he loves).
Together, using their powers (both magical and circus-learned), they go after Madame Josephine, a former opera singer and the wife of one of the most notorious gangsters in the District, who wears the magical ring on her finger at all times.
Of course, the Enigmas also have their own agendas. They are not to be trusted, and the Enigmas holding their debts have made sure that only Israel or Clara—not both—will taste freedom when the job is done. That fate becomes even more heart-wrenching as their attraction and admiration for each other grows (despite solitary Clara’s best efforts to deny catching any sort of feelings).
But while the fantasy heist setup sits at the core of the novel, and the story works within its confines, that label fails to capture the richness of both the story and the artfulness of Penelope’s writing. Like a jazz number that comes back to a chorus, changing the notes a bit each time, Penelope frequently flashes back to the childhood of one of the principal characters, opening the novel with the story of Clara’s birth, but featuring the early years of several others in turn. The weaving of those tales into the larger narrative gives a sense of continuity, that the present is deeply connected to the past, and that both together shape the future.
The theme of freedom is also a raw one here, for characters so close to the legacy of enslavement. When certain characters are denied their free will (and face a fate worse than death), it’s against the backdrop of that legacy. The debts carried by those who now have deals with the spirits reflect the debts that keep sharecroppers on the same land, in servitude to those who own it. Clara also struggles with the idea of what can be done with freedom—and if hers was so hard won, shouldn’t she be doing something with her life to reflect that?
The setting sparkles and sings, and Clara’s no-nonsense, prickly attitude are heightened by the wonder that surrounds her—while at the same time, they’re grounded in the realities that many of her community face, whether at the hands of the Enigmas or poverty. And though she doesn’t intend to, Clara again emerges as a hero, simply from her determination to help those in need.
It’s a curse, but it’s also her core—and the center of what makes a community. It’s people who help each other, and it’s how we know who we are.
Alana Joli Abbott is a reviewer and game writer, whose multiple choice novels, including Choice of the Pirate and Blackstone Academy for Magical Beginners, are published by Choice of Games. She is the author of three novels, several short stories, and many role playing game supplements. She also edits fantasy anthologies for Outland Entertainment, including Bridge to Elsewhere and Never Too Old to Save the World (currently on Kickstarter). You can find her online at VirgilandBeatrice.com.