The Conductors by Nicole Glover
Hetty Rhodes and her husband Benjy were celebrated conductors on the Underground Railroad, famous for their prowess in magic and for never losing a person. The war has ended, and both are making ends meet in Philadelphia, solving murders and mysteries the white authorities won’t touch. But when a friend is murdered, all signs point towards something nefarious in their inner circle of friends, particularly among the elites of Black Philadelphia.
I really, really enjoyed this.
A bit messy at first (so many characters to keep track of, and an odd present/past storyline), but it all came together quite nicely.
“You have not had even a spare moment to do so. They expect you to be strong, to not show a bit of weakness no matter what you’re going through.”
Hetty was utterly fantastic. She has spent her entire adult life searching for her sister, who she lost while the two were escaping to freedom. Her search has formed the impetus for her entire career—as a conductor, as a magic practitioner, and as one-half of a crime-solving duo. Her life, however, has essentially been one of non-committal, because how can she commit to anything fully when at any moment she might discover her sister’s whereabouts and need to go?
Her relationship was Benjy was much the same—a marriage of convenience, with both really loving each other but reluctant to say the damn words. They are the best of friends, but the ghost of Esther and Hetty’s refusal to accept and move on are firmly wedged between them, which leads the two to hide truths and secondary lives from each other.
However, when the hell has Hetty even had a minute to mourn, or been allowed for a second to let herself be perceived as weak? Glover’s take on the Strong Black Woman stereotype is fascinating, and the implications of this stereotype permeate every single Black woman in the book. No one can be weak, no one can show weakness or reveal pain, or face being perceived as other or lesser. And so everyone carries on, chin up, forward momentum, hiding their hurts and wounds from each other.
“Burdens lessen when they are shared. Or will you better understand this with a story?”
He snorted. “I’m curious at how you’ll tell it. Would it be a story told with animals? Of mice banding together to scare off a lion? Or ants that carry a bounty of food home? Oh, I know just the one: It’ll be about birds that roll a pumpkin home?”
“It’ll be a story about three impossible tasks the husband can’t figure out until the wife shows him the trick.”
I also ended up liking a lot of the secondary characters (and casual queerness—including a trans masc character and a gay couple!!!!!!!), despite being overwhelmed at first by how many there were and how they were related to each other (I had the same struggle with A Desolation Called Peace, which had a bajillion characters with numbers and nouns for names whyyyyy my brain cannot handle it). I loved how Glover documented and explained the lives of those who had escaped slavery and tried to move on—how they moved on, how they processed it (or didn’t), and how those who had been born into freedom revolved around those who did not. And yes, that’s a lot of trauma, but there was also SO. MUCH. JOY. It was a fascinating and well-researched insight into reconstruction Philly, and I really, really enjoyed reading about it.
The theme of community was so strong in this book—of people opening up, making themselves vulnerable and becoming stronger because of it. That is why there were so many secondary characters, because Hetty’s world was a community and a network of friends and non-blood family, all connected, for the most part, because Hetty and Benjy led them all to freedom. They all shared a bond they could not forget, even those who wanted to move past their beginnings and start fresh. And while Hetty expresses this sentiment of becoming stronger together, she doesn’t truly seem to understand it and embrace it wholly herself—she is an island, braving the ocean alone, occasionally visited by other ships in the night who ask of her resources and time.
I also liked the addition of the magic systems. There is the white-dominated system of Sorcery, which uses wands and a labyrinthian set of rules that is never really explained (mainly because I don’t know if Hetty herself understood it, or cared to understand it). Wand-owning is banned for Black people, and during the war Black people with magical talent wore slave-collars that inhibited their abilities and kept them tied to the farms/plantations, which was an insidious depiction of white supremacy and systemic racism of this world. And then there was the magic of constellations, a magic debunked by whites (and denigrated by non-slaves) and used mainly by former slaves to subvert the system and covertly inform others of what was happening.
While this is a murder mystery at its heart, it’s mostly a book about community and moving on and finding peace and love after a horrific series of events and trauma. Of becoming stronger together. Because the mystery itself ended fairly quickly, with a mustache-twirling monologue and all plot threads neatly tied up.
“Don’t you think it’s funny,” Benjy said, “that after all the time you spend asking so many questions, in the end the answer just appears right in front of you?”
Overall, this is definitely a must-read.
I received this ARC from NetGalley for an honest review
The Conductors releases March 2, 2021, from John Joseph Adams/Mariner Books