Saturday, March 06, 2021

The Conductors by Nicole Glover: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

The Conductors by Nicole Glover

The Conductors is a debut novel by Nicole Glover and it starts Murder and Magic series set in 1860s Philadelphia, after the American Civil War. The main character is Hetty Rhodes, a former slave who’s helped other slaves escape to safety as a so called conductor of the Underground Railroad. Now that the war is over, she’s settled in Philadelphia with her husband Benjy, a fellow conductor. She works as a seamstress and he as a blacksmith, but in their spare time they find missing persons and solve other mysteries. They are aided by their extraordinary magic that allows them to perform all sorts of near impossible feats.

A friend is found dead and it appears he was killed with magic. They set out to solve his murder, but new bodies turn up. Hetty is also trying to find a missing woman, and then there’s background noise of grave robberies that she and Benjy don’t pay attention to at first. Alongside the present day there are chapters about Hetty’s and Benjy’s past as conductors.

This book has a great premise, but unfortunately it suffers from a clumsy execution and poorly conducted plot. At the beginning of the book I had to check several times that I wasn’t reading a sequel, as there were references to people and events as if I should already know them. The narrative has some temporal jumps here and there, with no clear indication that the paragraph describes earlier action. And worst of all, it relies heavily on telling, not showing, so that I had hard time connecting emotionally with the characters.

This is especially the case with Hetty who is the sole point of view character. She appeared to be a strong-willed and formidable woman, but I never really figured out why she solved the mysteries. Mostly she seemed to regard it as her duty that didn’t really give her any pleasure. The side characters were even more difficult to get a hang of.

(As an aside, I found it really odd that Hetty and Benjy had chosen Rhodes as their last name. Maybe it has a different connotation among the freed slaves, but as a white European, I immediately thought of Cecil Rhodes, the notorious figure in African colonialism and great believer in white supremacy.)

What really prevented me from immersing myself in the story was a total lack of descriptions. A couple of characters were briefly described, mostly by the colour of their skin, but I had no idea about their ages, heights and looks otherwise. I had no idea what sort of clothing people wore, which is something I’ve come to rely on in historical fiction. Hetty was a seamstress, but fabrics and colours were never described, as if she didn’t care at all. There were no smells, even though there were magic potions, horses, poor slums and bogs. And the town could’ve been anywhere in any era. I imagined earth-covered streets and low wooden buildings, and then the town turned out to be so large it had streetcars, which I would assume means paved streets, gas street lamps, and brick townhouses.

The magic system was divided to sorcery of the white and celestial (?) magic of the Black. I liked how flexible the magic was and how the practitioners could do pretty much anything with it, though it was never properly described either. What annoyed me a little was how the celestial magic was based on zodiac signs of western astrology and Greek gods. Surely there would’ve been other mythologies to base it on, which would’ve explained better why this particular type of magic was natural to the Black and Native Americans.

But what really irked me was that the alt history angle of magic wasn’t properly utilised. Now that the former slaves were free to use their extremely powerful magic, they did nothing to overturn the system that regarded them as lower beings and instead submitted to be treated badly. The author could’ve—should’ve—imagined bigger than solving mysteries, and not limit herself to history.

Solving the mysteries was never a priority to Hetty and Benjy anyway, even though they made a show of it. In the end, they all got solved without their input. The killer got bored with the pair’s inefficiency and made their move against them, and the missing person just showed up. The grave robbery angle sort of went away. The only storyline that progressed at all was Hetty’s and Benjy’s relationship, but even that was fairly low key. So, a great premise, but a really frustrating end result.

I got a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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