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 hypnotising with a melody to an ageing 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.
Thanks to being born on a crossroads, Clara Johnson is more attuned to the spirit world than most. She can see ghosts, commune with spirits and call on Enigma’s, beings of power who can grant mortals wishes for a cost, something Clara knows only too well. So when The Empress, the Enigma who holds her debt, offers Clara the chance to gain her freedom, Clara jumps at the chance. But when she realises the task is to steal a ring off the most famous woman in the district, Clara knows she will need help. Enter Zelda, Israel, Jesse Lee and Aristotle all of whom have their own skill sets and debts to be paid off. But getting the ring isn’t as easy as it seemed, the deeper they look into it’s history, the darker it gets, and soon the spirit world starts bleeding into the human one. Clara and her crew will have to work fast if they are to stop the ring bearer from achieving their goals, time for them to achieve their destiny.
The Monsters We Defy is told solely from Clara’s POV, and what a character she is. Penelope chose to make her main character an actual historical figure, a girl who killed a while police man in self defence and was allowed to claim self-defence, something unheard of at the time. Basing her on a real person, added an extra depth and emotional component to the story, as did including other famous Black people from the era. But obviously our Clara is fictional, magical, still fierce and unwavering, but jaded and resigned to a life in the shadows. She spends her days working and her evenings allowing people to make desperate, and foolish decisions by calling Enigma’s to answer their wishes, no matter how many times she tells them it will come with a price. She is someone who doesn’t trust easily, and yet has an ability to draw people to her, and I loved seeing her open herself up in this story and start letting people in.
As well as Clara, there are four other main characters. Zelda, the once circus act who escaped that life and now spends her days hustling and stealing from the wealthy, much to Clara’s chagrin. Israel Lee, a singer in one of the biggest bands out there, he’s charming, pretty to look at, and has the ability to make people feel & act certain ways when he plays his music. Jesse Lee is Israels cousin and gets drawn into their plan when he hears that if they succeed, his deal will be void. He has the ability to make people forget memories. Aristotle tried too hard to live up to his name, now he can fully become any character he wishes, but at a steep cost. Everyone of our characters, except Zelda, entered into a deal with an Enigma at a time in their life when they were desperate, never quite understanding the consequences, and now they all want out. Penelope did a great job at getting us invested in these characters, thanks in part to flashback chapters we get from their POV’s when they get introduced, giving us a slice of their lives before and an understanding of why they made the decisions they did.
I loved the magic system that Penelope created for this book. Magic, spirits, being of higher powers. Clara’s ability to talk to and see the spirit world means that she is one of the few people able to commune with the Enigma’s, think Genie or fae, who have the ability to grant people a charm, anything their heart desires, but every charm comes with a trick, the cost of their aid. Clara’s is that she is unable to turn down anyone asking for help, something that wears on her daily, but some of the other members of our crew have ones that have a higher emotional toll. Penelope shows brilliantly that all magic comes with some sort of cost, and it just makes you that much more emotionally invested in the characters outcomes.
Penelope effortlessly brought to life 1920’s America, with flapper dresses, gangsters, prejudice, classism and racism. It wasn’t a great time to be poor or Black, but put them both together and you were seen as the lowest of the low, even by other Black people. The mystery of this story is centred around poor Black people going missing, and she showcases how little people cared about it, instead saying they had run away, or were useless anyway so what difference did it make. You can’t help but empathise with Clara’s anger, that people would just ignore these disappearances because of the persons colours, because of where they lived. Her writing style draws you into the story and I enjoyed the slow scenes where our characters were planning the heist, as much as the action packed, heart in your throat ones. This is a book that was impossible to put down, the pacing & plot twists made sure it flowed effortlessly & I never wanted it to end.
You want to know about the romance you say? It was beautiful. Full of wit, charm, a little push and pull, a little of two idiots who like each other but don’t want to do anything about it. It was wonderful seeing Clara come out of her shell a little, someone who has been told she’s too dark, even for other Black people. But as much as I loved the romance, and I did, I loved seeing Clara developing relationships of any kind, and any lovers of the found family trope are going to adore this story. She was someone who had shut herself off, but this mystery, job and the people surrounding her have her coming out of her shell more.
I adored this book! It’s witty, adventurous, romantic and heartbreaking and I would love the chance to return to this magical version of 1020’s Washington DC, and these characters if we ever get the chance. Penelope has created a story and character with Clara, that will stay with me for a long time and I can’t wait to get my hands on her backlog, and find out what she has in store for us next.