Philadelphia freedom: magic and mayhem

Big 4+ review: The Conductors by Nicole Glover

r/suggestmeabook: I want a book about a formerly enslaved couple, previously conductors for the Underground Railroad, who practice magic and detection in Philadelphia.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 432

Publisher: Houghton Millan Harcourt

Series: Murder & Magic

Publication date: 3/2/2021

Historical fantasy mystery

From the publisher: As a conductor on the Underground Railroad, Hetty Rhodes helped usher dozens of people north with her wits and magic. Now that the Civil War is over, Hetty and her husband, Benjy, have settled in Philadelphia, solving murders and mysteries that the white authorities won’t touch. When they find one of their friends slain in an alley, Hetty and Benjy bury the body and set off to find answers. But the secrets and intricate lies of the elites of Black Philadelphia only serve to dredge up more questions.

Nicole Glover has executed a wonderful debut novel, creating a world in which there are two magic systems, as segregated as the society in which they are found. Despite the suggestion of the cover and title, this story does not live in the period of the Underground Railroad, but in the immediate aftermath, with a couple celebrated as conductors trying to get on with their lives in a community that seems to wish to forget the past.

Sorcery overpowered. It devoured. It put people in chains and destroyed nations in the name of gold.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

There are many layers in Glover’s world, with Hetty and Benjy not quite at the bottom of their social order, but not near the top, either. The formerly enslaved and the always freedman don’t always mix, and Hetty and Benjy’s old friends, many of whom they personally conducted out of the slave states, seem to be trying to rise to the top of Black society, which means downplaying the their former condition.

Hetty took another deep breath, and as she had done many times in the past, she pushed down her thoughts and feelings until they were tucked away and out of sight.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

It’s a dark world in this Philadelphia after the Civil War, and they are troubleshooters within it, trying to make sense of murders and kidnappings and body snatching. Not surprisingly, there’s bigotry to contend with, but also how to make a society among the various Blacks in this population: always free, freed by buying themselves out, freed by running away, and freed in the wake of the war. This particular story revolves around the murder of one of the first men they brought to Philadelphia, a man all about making a fast buck, feeling that money will make him more secure, but many other concerns radiate from that central story.

We aren’t slaves anymore. No more slipping away in the night to hastily dig graves and whisper prayers. We should be able to take care of our dead.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

As a typical admirer of the Underground Railroad, it threw me when there was a scene where a woman excoriates them for having helped people escape slavery. But it makes sense; those left behind probably did have to endure more for the sin of deliverance of a few, and some were probably bitter, either because they were left behind or they had complex feelings about not running. I just hadn’t thought of it as being anything more than inspiring, and it was good pause for thought that no matter how we now take something for granted as a positive, most activists in any era have detractors, even from those they are trying to benefit.

All these conductors. They were looking for a fight and didn’t care about the harm it caused, and they still are. Pushing people to vote, staging protests, making too much noise, attracting too much attention, and then they die.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

The magic systems are quite interesting. There’s Sorcery, used by wand-wielding whites and forbidden to Blacks. There’s not too much about it, which makes sense, as neither Hetty nor Benjy practice it. Then there’s Celestial magic, which Hetty and Benjy practice, based on drawing sigils based on the constellations, which can be used for mundane tasks or impressive feats of defense. The magic takes discipline as well as talent, and appears to mostly be generationally transmitted.

No laws stopped white folks from trying to use Celestial magic, just jeers and taunts. There were stories of genuinely curious who attempted to learn, and books written by well-meaning abolitionists talking about what they called Primal magic found in slave quarters. In these same books, the writers were puzzled by this branch of magic. But that was their own fault. They had this idea that magic existed to make their lives easier.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

The protagonists are complex, and even after the conclusion of the book, it feels as though there’s more to learn about them. I had difficulty at first keeping the other characters straight, as the in media res choices lead to the narrative reeling off names as if you should know who they are, so it took a while to get into it because I was busy trying to figure out who was being discussed. However, after a few chapters I started getting more comfortable with them and enjoyed the cast.

Benjy was smart in a way Hetty did not have words for. It was something greater than the books he read, or his ability to craft something out of metal. It was in how he saw the world, not just for what was there but what it could become.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

The other quibble I have is with the denouement, which felt a little hurried and not as clear as I would have liked, and the clues to the murderer were a little murky, but there, once you know the answer. But this was a book in which I had over 30 passages highlighted, so it’s truly just a quibble. Glover touches on so many social aspects of the world with insightful observations that it was a challenge to decide which ones to include here.

A story is a living creature, and they need a personal touch to live on. You breathe in your woes, your loves, your troubles, and eventually they become something new.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

All in all, an engaging book in an interesting alternate reality and a world I’ll be happy to return to.


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