I chose The Conductors by Nicole Glover for the “Lies” theme because it’s a murder mystery. However, it turned out to fit the theme in other ways as well: many of the suspects rewrote themselves and their lives to some extent after being freed from enslavement or moving up in the social order, meaning the investigators must constantly re-evaluate what they know and think they know. In addition, the protagonist Hetty Rhodes is a storyteller, and her thoughts about stories are relevant to the stories she and her husband Benjy are told about the murders.
“Where do you think my stories come from?”
“You heard them in the quarters and at your mother’s side as you shelled peas. You collected them from old aunties and uncles with more dreams than memories of African kingdoms. And most of all, you gathered them from the fancies of others wanting nothing more than to pass the time.”
“That’s one part,” Hetty murmured, “and it’s a very small part. 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. They aren’t the books you love so much. Stories change with the tellers.”
The Conductors is historical fantasy set soon after the American Civil War; the protagonists are formerly enslaved people who now work as amateur detectives in Philadelphia, among the Black community there. Magic is common, but in this world’s version of Jim Crow laws, people of color are forbidden from learning or using certain methods of using magic, for instance the use of wooden wands. Before Emancipation, enslaved people with magic were used by their enslavers and kept in check via the use of punishing collars that inhibited their abilities, not all that different from limitations imposed upon enslaved people and their talents in our world.
The details of the magic systems, wands versus nature and stars, were well thought out, both complex and thematically meaningful. The plot flowed very quickly. The murder mystery begins with a body found in an alley. Hetty and Benjy realize they have to search among their friends and acquaintances for the truth, and along the way they uncover more than they’d imagined. I won’t spoil the mystery here; I did guess the guilty party eventually, but not until close to the end. For me, guessing the murderer has nothing to do with how much I enjoy the journey!
The thing I wanted more of was a sense of place. I live in Philadelphia, and have some knowledge of the historical community depicted in the book, at least the real world version. I used to live in that area of the city and regularly read the historic markers. I had been hoping for a lot more sensory detail and specificity about locations and institutions; instead, the setting felt very bland, a background but not a character in itself, if that makes sense. For example, I am pretty sure the church and cemetery that figure into the plot were created for the book, which is fine, but felt very neutral; when real locations are mentioned, there isn’t a lot of detail. Obviously, the setting of this book is an alternate universe, so the Philadelphia with people using magic is not the same as the one I live in. But I would have liked to see the Black history of my city celebrated to a greater extent. This might have been a conscious choice to separate the story from real people and their lives, of course.
Incidentally, here’s the Historic Philadelphia Burial Places Map if you’re interested – there’s a lot of concern in Philadelphia about burial places that were utterly destroyed by developers, especially in the first half of the twentieth century.
Anyway! Wanting more of a book I enjoyed is always a good thing. I love the characters and the lowkey romance and the twisty plot. I’m looking forward to the sequel.