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Book Review: ‘The Monsters We Defy’ by Leslye Penelope

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Clara Johnson is one hell of a girl. Born with a caul over her face and screaming her head off, she sees what others can’t and she never bites her tongue. In The Monsters We Defy author Leslye Penelope tells the story of Clara and her friends who are trying to save humankind from losing the very thing that makes us human, our destinies.

Penelope paints a vivid picture of 1920s Washington D.C. from the African American perspective. Her characters are rich and seem to come right off the pages as they work to solve a puzzling mystery and stop an all-out spiritual war that could destroy our world. I highly recommend her bewitching story for a great read.

[Note: While I am reviewing this novel independently and honestly, it should be noted that it has been provided to me by Redhook Books/Orbit for the purpose of this review. Warning: My review of The Monsters We Defy contains some spoilers!]

A rough start for Clara Johnson

Clara enters the world at a cross-road with a caul completely covering her. These portents hint at a difficult life with important choices ahead, and a special gift for seeing the other side. It turns out that both are true. Clara is able to see spirits that have passed over, god-like spirits called enigmas, and psychic energy of various kinds. This power has always scared Clara so she blocks it out as much as she can. 

But when she is seventeen years old Clara faces a horrible tragedy. During the 1919 Red Summer Riots, she shot and killed a white police officer who broke into her bedroom. She was arrested and spent two years in jail.

She was found guilty and faced with the possibility of spending the rest of her life in jail, so she used her ability to call an enigma to her, the Empress, who gave her a charm to gain her freedom. But all magic has a price, known as the trick, and Clara’s trick is that if people come to her asking for help she must help broker a deal between them and an enigma. Clara hates doing this but since she accepted the deal she has no choice.

A glimmer of hope in The Monsters We Defy

Clara’s been brokering deals between people and enigmas for six long years when she is suddenly offered a new deal by the Empress. If Clara can get ahold of a special ring and give it to the Empress then she will be completely released from her deal. Further, if anyone else with a deal helps her, they’ll also be released from their contracts. Armed with this offer she enlists the help of Aristotle, Israel, and Jesse Lee. Her roommate Zelda doesn’t have a deal but she sees herself as Clara’s guardian angel and helps her anyway. 

There is one small problem with her band of heroes though. The Empress can cancel any deal except those made with the Man in Black. Of course, that’s who holds Israel’s contract. At the same time the Man in Black has offered Israel the same deal the Empress gave Clara. This means that even if the group is successful only one of them can have their freedom.

The Monsters We Defy Characters
(L to R) Jesse Lee, Israel, Clara, Zelda & Aristotle. Illustration by Mlle Pysthache. (Via L Penelope’s website )

Between that little detail and Clara’s naturally suspicious nature, she has a hard time trusting Israel and Jesse Lee (his cousin). Making matters worse, she finds herself reluctantly falling for the handsome musician.

The stakes are even bigger than they first appear

At the same time that the Empress offers Clara her new deal, people start going missing in the neighborhood. All the missing people are young, poor, and Black, in other words, people that won’t be noticed by those in power. The Empress tells Clara that getting her the ring will bring back those who have gone missing, which is a big part of what makes Clara say yes.

As they find out more about the missing people and their connection to the ring a much bigger conspiracy is revealed that leaves the group uncertain of how to proceed.

Now when dealing with enigmas it’s important to know that they cannot lie. But that doesn’t mean they exactly tell the truth either. The enigmas can twist words, withhold information, and bend meaning to achieve their ends. The Empress does this several times to poor Clara and her gang. She is less than forthcoming with information about the ring and what is really going on with it and the missing people.

As the group uncovers more and more of the conspiracy they realize two things: they absolutely have to get the ring and they absolutely cannot trust any of the enigmas with it.

Our heroine makes a daring plan

Together the group decides that they need to try and get the ring and save the missing people. It takes a lot of planning but they finally come up with a scheme that they believe will work. There are many moving parts to their plot though and anything can happen.

Will it be enough or will the enigmas come out on top? The suspense is very high and it seems like everything is lost so Clara tries something desperate. Will it pay off? No one is sure what will happen until it happens and wow! What a finish.

The Monsters We Defy has amazing characters

Clara’s story is extraordinary. Penelope creates a whole cast of amazing characters with complicated backstories that I really felt for. I cried for Jesse Lee a few times, let me tell you.

But even though any one of them had enough hardship that they could have become cold and turned away from people, they don’t. A defining characteristic of all the main characters is that they are all very lonely. Each of them (except Zelda) is saddled with a trick from their enigma that keeps them separated from others and it’s really nice watching these lonely people find their way back to companionship and love.

Zelda was an especially wonderful character. She’s an albino Black woman who is an ex-circus sideshow “freak.” She has a multitude of talents, incredible energy, and a love of life that works as a great foil against Clara’s frumpy, closed-off personality. She is endlessly optimistic and completely fearless. It’s a complete joy watching her goad Clara into having a good time despite herself.

One of the most fascinating things about this story is that Clara Johnson’s based on a real person. The author read a story about the real-life Clara Johnson and the 1919 DC Race Wars and thought she deserved a story.

Clara really did shoot a police officer that stormed into her bedroom and shot at her. She really did go to jail for two years and was found guilty before being granted a new trial. And the prosecutor really did drop the charges. Now history doesn’t record if that happened because she made a deal with an enigma or if Clara could see spirits but it’s an interesting “What if…?” story nonetheless.

A well-plotted story

This seemed like a straightforward treasure hunt at first but The Monsters We Defy ended up being an intricate mystery story with a fun magical layer. It was a fun story of ghosts and magic without a creep factor.

I love spooky stories and it was interesting to see the spirit world being presented in a way that caused awe instead of fear. Don’t get me wrong, the enigmas could do terrible things, they were very dangerous and scary in their own way but it wasn’t heart-pounding fear, it was more existential fear.

I loved how the true enemy kept changing. Every time the characters seemed to have a handle on what was happening and who they were facing, everything got upended and they were sent in a new direction. It made the final battle that much more intense and exciting.

Between the soulful characters and the masterful plot I think just about anyone will enjoy Penelope’s latest offering.

My Rating: 9/10

The Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope is available now! For more information please visit Hachette Book Group. Have you read it yet? Let us know what you think on social media! If you haven’t already, check out my review of One Dark Window by Rachel Gillig!

Book Review: One Dark Window by Rachel Gillig

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Link for Art: Leslye Penelope’s website 

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Luna Gauthier

I've always been a bookworm and fantasy is my favortie genre. I never imagined (okay, I imagined but I didn't think) that I could get those books sent to me for just my opinion. Now I am a very happy bookworm! @Lunagauthier19 on Twitter

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