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 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.


Seriously, don’t judge this book by its cover

Big 4+ review: Transformation by Carol Berg

r/suggestmeabook: I want a character-driven tale of a man who’s lost everything having to help those who took it.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 452

Publisher: Roc

Series: Rai Kirah

Fantasy

From the publisher: Seyonne is a man waiting to die. He has been a slave for sixteen years, almost half his life, and has lost everything of meaning to him. Seyonne has made peace with his fate.  With strict self-discipline he forces himself to exist only in the present moment and to avoid the pain of hope or caring about anyone.

I’m glad I didn’t pass this up because of the execrable cover (a different edition is on the banner, but the one I had was the terrible one). If Para hadn’t recommended it, I’d not have looked again after an initial shudder. I’d have missed out on a great book.

How could something so complexly wonderful and mysterious as human intelligence devise a world so utterly, absolutely absurd?

Carol Berg, Transformation

Seyonne has a terrible dilemma. He’s been a slave of the Derzhi since they conquered his homeland and took him as part of their profit for doing so. He’s been stripped of all the rituals that his people taught him would keep him clean before the gods, as well as the talents and powers he once had. He keeps alive by suppressing his past through a visualization taught to him by an experienced slave. Now sold to the crown prince of the Derzhi, he’s looked into the man’s soul and found that he will have to help him retain his birthright.

I am indeed afraid, Your Highness. Every moment of my existence carries such a burden of terror you could not imagine it. I fear I have no soul. I fear there are no gods. I fear there is no meaning to the pain I have known. I fear I have lost the capacity to love another human being or ever to see goodness in one. Among such fears as these, my lord, there is little room for you.

Carol Berg, Transformation

That premise is an amazing one to work through: having to willingly help a person directly benefiting from your suffering. How does one find the will, not to mention the compassion, to do something like that? Wouldn’t it be easier to curse your gods and refuse? The idea of gritting your teeth and serving a higher purpose, even if it assists your personal enemies, is explored at length in this lovely book, but not at the expense of an absorbing tale that moves forward at a pace to make the transformation indicated by the book’s title believable.

It was the ultimate expression of subjugation—to be forced to give up the most personal, most private self to one who had no claim, no right of friendship or kinship or guesting, to one who had no idea of the power of names or the dangerous entry they gave to the soul.

Carol Berg, Transformation

Seyonne is a protagonist to root for. He has too much experience with pain to invite it lightly, and still wants to survive, despite the seeming hopelessness of his predicament. When life has taught you that to trust is to be betrayed, and loneliness is a shield, how much harder to open yourself up to anything or anyone new?

The Derzhi were a warrior race, and though they prized the literacy of their scholars and merchants, it was much in the way they prized their dogs who did tricks, or their birds who could carry messages unerringly, or their illusionists who could make rabbits turn into flowers or sultry maidens disappear. It was not something they would want to do themselves.

Carol Berg, Transformation

And his prince? Aleksander is a reckless, petty prince. The idea of Seyonne having to help him fills him (and the reader) with disdain. No wonder you would wonder at whether gods exist, when they seem to snicker at you from their lofty heights by giving you the burden of helping this bastard at the expense of your own heart.

Ezzarian prophets say that the gods fight their battles within the souls of men and that if the deities mislike the battleground, they reshape it according to their will.

Carol Berg, Transformation

Slavery is difficult to write. Berg has chosen to go with the type of slavery more commonly found throughout history: making slaves of war captives. She doesn’t go into enough detail to let you know if the slavery is hereditary, but, on the face of it, there’s no indication that it is. It may be a little quibble for many readers, but for me, it was easier to cope with a civilization with that kind of slavery than the chattel slavery of the 17th-19th centuries of the Western Hemisphere. However, it isn’t an easy life, and Berg does a good job of portraying the powerlessness, pain, and isolation that slavery would inflict.

The merchants glared at me in warning, but a slave learns quickly to pick and choose the points of honor for which he is willing to suffer. As the years of servitude pass, those become fewer and fewer.

Carol Berg, Transformation

The world-building is convincing, with enough details to make you see a world with civilizations not unlike our own, but with different outcomes. Berg doesn’t litter the book with a huge cast, but enough to give you an idea of the complexity of the society. It works; with this first person narrative, Seyonne wouldn’t have interacted with all the various segments of the world, and his keyhole view is sufficient.

Survival was still of interest to me, though it was not the passion it had been when I was eighteen and still learning what manacles and whips were all about.

Carol Berg, Transformation

Demons, sorcerers, believers and unbelievers all populate this book. Berg doesn’t offer easy hope or redemption, but she does offer both, convincingly. If you want a book to affirm that good can still be found in the worst of situations, or, in Peat Long’s terms, a tale of healing, this is the read for you.


Fiction most truthful

Big 4+ review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Audiobook narrated by Bahni Turpin

r/suggestmeabook: I want a reimagined history of slavery that illuminates individual and group brutality as seen through the eyes of a young enslaved woman.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 320

Audiobook: 10 hours and 43 minutes

Publisher: Doubleday

2017 Pulitzer Prize: Fiction

From the publisher: In Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor: engineers and conductors operate a secret network of actual tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora embarks on a harrowing flight from one state to the next, encountering, like Gulliver, strange yet familiar iterations of her own world at each stop.

I decided to read this book after seeing it on a list of historical fiction must-reads and didn’t look into it any further. For a change, I decided to try the audiobook (and it was available sooner from my library). Bahni Turpin is an amazing narrator. She did a great job with the voices, making each character distinct. She got through all the brutality without ever overdoing it and turning it into a mockery, which would have been tempting, as harsh as it gets at times. And the writing? Gorgeous.

Sometimes such an experience bound one person to another; just as often the shame of one’s powerlessness made all witnesses into enemies.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

The first section of the book, about 1/5 of the overall text, is straight historical recreation. Colson Whitehead makes sure that we’ve adequately toured the degradation of field hands in Georgia’s cotton fields. What was unexpected was that, unlike other books I’ve read or movies I’ve seen, Whitehead delves into the relationships between the enslaved—not the typical house vs. field, but among those working the fields—and how the cruelty of their environment poisoned the relations among them. Twelve Years a Slave or Django Unchained didn’t go nearly this far, so be prepared for a shit ton of violence. Is it unwarranted? I think not, given what the reality was.

Ajarry made a science of her own black body and accumulated observations. Each thing had a value and as value changed, everything else changed also. A broken calabash was worth less than the one that held its water, a hook that kept its catfish more prized than one that relinquished its bait. In America, the quirk was that people were things.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

So imagine my surprise when I get to the part where the railroad is literally carved underground. It’s not like they hide it in the description, so it’s my bad for not knowing. Not knowing that this was going to be more along the lines of alternate history, it was like taking a bite of what you thought was gravy and finding out it’s pudding. It’s not that you dislike the pudding; it’s just that you weren’t prepared for it.

The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end. It must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark and light colored stones in an alternating patter. The sheer industry that had made such a project possible.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

I do have some issues with the literal underground railroad, just because the world is so literal in most ways that it’s a strain on the suspension of disbelief. Creating tunnels that reach from Georgia to Indiana would be a feat of engineering far past the ordinary abilities of untrained labor, even today. In the period, the technology was just being invented after early attempts to tunnel under the Thames demonstrated the hazards of doing so–it’s not just a matter of enough brute strength to pick your way through the stone or earth.

But even that didn’t bother me so much as what anyone who watched enough WWII POW escape movies (or even Hogan’s Heroes) knows: What would they have done with all the debris? That’s always a big thing for those movies–or of prison escapes by tunneling. You have to have someplace to put the dirt you’ve taken out of the hole to avoid suspicion. So where the hell did they put the debris? It bothered me more than it should.

The cabins radiated permanence and in turn summoned timeless feelings in those who lived and died in them: envy and spite.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

But, okay, I got past that. The writing is beautiful, in contrast to the horror it invokes, and the pace is generally on point. I’m not crazy about the digressions into other points of view that don’t really lend themselves to moving the plot along; only two of them seem at all necessary to the story.

White man trying to kill you slow every day, and sometimes trying to kill you fast. Why make it easy for him? That was one kind of work you could say no to.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

The use of other historical assaults on the health and integrity of Blacks in this country, although displaced in time and place to be included in this narrative, integrates the narrative of racism in an effective way. It’s not just evil slaveowners on the plantation, but reaches out across to those who are purportedly looking to advance Blacks.

Sometimes a slave will be lost in a brief eddy of liberation. In the sway of a sudden reverie among the furrows or while untangling the mysteries of an early-morning dream. In the middle of a song on a warm Sunday night. Then it comes, always—the overseer’s cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for a tine moment across the eternity of her servitude.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

As a result, it’s easy to enter into the feelings of Cora, the protagonist, when she is suspicious of whites who say they’re going to help. It’s easy to say; hard to do. Even seemingly helpful whites offer betrayal at times, so it’s hard to know who to trust. But Whitehead doesn’t then elevate all Blacks to sainthood; there’s treachery there as well. Whitehead’s world in The Underground Railroad, bent and distorted by slavery and the concomitant racism, is a stunning feat of imagining oneself into another reality, informed by facts but turned into an immersive experience through his artful use of them.

As the years pass, Valentine observed, racial violence only becomes more vicious in its expression. It will not abate or disappear, not anytime soon, and not in the south.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

So, on the balance, I am in favor of this alternate reality, as it shines a light on truth through fiction. It’s not quite perfect, but, damn, it’s close.


Survival, banditry, and a little magic

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho

r/suggestmeabook: I want a wuxia-inspired novella about bandits trying to deal with the outcome of temple desecration in a fantasy mid-20th century Malay.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 155

Publisher: Tordotcom

From the publisher: A bandit walks into a coffeehouse, and it all goes downhill from there. Guet Imm, a young votary of the Order of the Pure Moon, joins up with an eclectic group of thieves (whether they like it or not) in order to protect a sacred object, and finds herself in a far more complicated situation than she could have ever imagined.

This novella has plenty to love: combat, deceit, trans rep, a corner of history largely unknown in the US, and lots of little mysteries. The writing is lucid as mountain spring water, and the characters are intriguing where not sympathetic, and mostly sympathetic (if occasionally annoying).

It was of course safest to avoid bandits, but since most looked like ordinary people—indeed, if you were unlucky, some of them were your cousin, your uncle, your brother—this was not always possible.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

There’s the bandit with the pretty face, Lau Fung Cheung, also known as Ah Sang, who could be Aramis of The Three Musketeers in a different life. There’s the solid and dependable Tet Sang, Lau Fung Cheung’s second, who finds himself drawn into conflicts he’d prefer to avoid. Then there’s the woman they made the mistake of helping, Guet Imm, a former votary of the tokong of the Pure Moon, a temple which has been destroyed.

Either she was on of those happy persons whose periods gave them little trouble, or her stoicism over her blistered feet extended to cramps and cold sweats.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

The novel is based on the Emergency, a conflict in the former Malay Colony of Britain, which was perceived as a communist insurrection by the Chinese ethnic population in the postwar period (1948-1960) by the British colonial powers. Taking a chapter from Stalin, the British relocated approximately one million Chinese “squatters” who lived on the fringes of the jungle and were supporting the insurrectionists, who saw themselves as a liberation army. In most of the British official summaries found by a quick Google search, the relocation was benign, giving them housing and infrastructure. The truth is more complex: these “squatters” were first moved to emptied prisons and, when those grew too full, to concentration and detention camps. It was only when the British realized this was not going to be a workable solution (and the more economically advantaged ethnic Chinese began to unite to protect the squatters), that the new villages were created.

“Of course I knew there were problems. But even when I went to town and got a job, nobody talked about a war.”

“Nobody talks about it. It’s not that kind of war.”

“What kind of war is it, then?”

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

The spark was racially motivated: the British were about to offer full citizenship to the Chinese Malays, but there was a popular backlash from the rest of the Malay population, and the British retracted the offer. This lead to members of the Chinese population responding more violently. This reaction didn’t come around as quickly as it sounds from this context: the Chinese in Malay had dealt with Chinese exclusion laws much like those in the US, from persecution during the Japanese occupation, and lack of adequate recourse to justice before and after the Japanese took Malay.

A bespectacled man with slick hair and alert lidless eyes of a gecko, he seemed cleanly and decent, like a clerk. At the same time, there was something off-putting about him—one would not be surprised to hear that he had embezzled funds or slapped his mother-in-law.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

At any rate, this novella of a fantasy Malay during that time partakes of aspects of the actual history. Cho uses the term “Tang” to refer to the ethnic Chinese (although it’s actually a dynasty), and it’s clear throughout the story that these are a people being singled out for persecution. The protagonists are not guerrillas; they are just displaced poor people who ran out of options for anything better.

You cannot stay rich in times like these without eating sin. If you don’t dare to do wrong, then you will suffer.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

The attitude toward trans people is refreshing. It appears that during this period, transgender people were generally accepted in Malay; it wasn’t until a Muslim resurgence in the 1980s that attitudes started to change. A culture with matter-of-fact acceptance and lack of stigma is a pleasure to imagine yourself into.

Tet Sang had known members of her Order who had been dedicated to the Pure Moon at a young age but then decided they could not endure to be called sister. They had departed to join male orders or start other lives. Conversely, he had no doubt that some of the Pure Moon’s nuns had lived as men before they joined her Order. Once they entered the deity’s light, no one was particularly interested in what they had been before.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

Possible spoiler here forward–no specifics, but you might find it to be one: My only real complaint about the novella is the ending; it feels as though it simply stops, rather than having a conclusion. It’s something I like about fiction; unlike real life, resolutions are almost always possible. Like most readers, an ending I dislike tends to color my opinion of the entire story. Cho has said she may return to these characters; I hope this ends up as a first part of a longer story, but even so, I’d have liked a better resting place.

He knew how dangerous it could be to assume that either women or mystics were harmless.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

All in all, it’s a book I recommend, although be warned that you may be ready to turn the last page to another chapter, and find that you’ve been left in the Malay jungle to wonder.

Want a different take? Check out Peat Long’s review of Zen Cho’s lovely book.


Doctor knows best

Review of a classic: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

r/suggestmeabook: I want a classic murder mystery narrated by a whimsical doctor with Hercule Poirot investigating.

Movie rating: G

Pages: 256

Available through Kindle Unlimited

From the publisher: Roger Ackroyd knew too much. He knew that the woman he loved had poisoned her brutal first husband. He suspected also that someone had been blackmailing her. Then, tragically, came the news that she had taken her own life with an apparent drug overdose.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a murder mystery classic from the indisputable master Agatha Christie. The irritating but brilliant Hercule Poirot discloses facts, but never illuminates why they matter until the end, giving the reader tantalizing clues that rarely disclose the ending.

The chains of habit. We work to attain an object, and the object gained, we find that what we miss is the daily toil.

Agatha Christie The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The narrator of this mystery is the primary reason for it being singled out from among Christie’s 82 mystery novels as a standout. For me, the best parts of the novel were the interaction between the narrator, Dr. Sheppard, and his sister, Caroline. He’s constantly exasperated by her nosy attitude and superior attitude. She’s an inveterate gossip, always looking through the windows to monitor the comings and goings of everyone around her.

The motto of the mongoose family, so Mr. Kipling tells us, is: “Go and find out.” If Caroline ever adapts a crest, I should certainly suggest a mongoose rampant.

Agatha Christie The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

As is often the case for Christie, the murder takes place in an estate where there are a limited number of suspects holed up together. The doctor was there for dinner and met most of the suspects there: The grasping sister-in-law, the blushing ingenue and niece, the big game hunter, the personal finance manager, the housekeeper, and the butler. Off-screen is the main suspect, the nephew and heir of the victim.

It is odd, when you have a secret belief of your own which you do not wish to acknowledge, the voicing of it by someone else will rouse you to a fury of denial.

Agatha Christie The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The novel is mostly charming, although there is a moment that stands out as an unpleasant reminder of the period. While the narrator is interviewing the sister-in-law, the sister-in-law describes the bill collectors. Trying to strike a sympathetic note, the narrator derides the bill collectors as having a “Semitic strain in their ancestry.” This casual antisemitism is a cruel reminder of just how commonplace it was in 1926. Sadly, almost 100 years later, this stereotypical gibe has not complete disappeared.

I don’t know exactly what a “proper place” constitutes—it sounds chilly and unpleasant—but I know that Miss Russell goes about with pinched lips, and what I can only describe as an acid smile.

Agatha Christie The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Another stock character of the past is in place: a big game hunter. Christie’s depiction of him is ambiguous. On the one hand, the narrator makes a rather snarky reference to the trophies he’s provided; on the other, he is presented as a relatively honorable man. I get the impression that she’d think of him as roughly equivalent to any other sports fanatic: the activity isn’t objectionable so much as the obsessive response to it.

I am sorry to say I detest Mrs. Ackroyd. She is all chains ad teeth and bones. A most unpleasant woman. She has small pale flinty blue eyes, and how ever gushing her words may be, those eyes of hers always remain coldly speculative.

Agatha Christie The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

As a woman writing in the twenties, Christie isn’t particularly feminist to our eyes. She offers many different characterizations of women, but no one seems to be particularly keen to change their power relationship with men. Class is challenged slightly more, with some women looking outside the class of their birth for mates, but that particular type of challenge is long-standing and not about to threaten anyone’s outlook,

Women observe subconsciously a thousand little details, without knowing they are doing so. Their subconscious mind adds these little things together—and they call the result intuition.

Agatha Christie The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

All in all, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a solid example of Christie’s finesse at writing an enjoyable puzzle that keeps you guessing, so try to avoid the numerous spoilers out there which will come up quickly if as part of the explanation as to why this particular novel is significant for her. Best to find out after you’ve read it.