ARC Review: The Conductors by Nicole Glover

This is a memorable book for me because it is the first time I got approved for an ARC request on Netgalley! Read on to know more of my thoughts on this book.

Publication Information

  • Date of Publication: 2 March 2021
  • Publisher: John Joseph Adams || Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Series: Murder and Magic #1
  • Age Category: Adult
  • Genre: Fantasy, Historical
  • Cover Art: Elizabeth Leggett
  • Cover Design: Martha Kennedy

Goodreads || StoryGraph || Amazon

About the book

A compelling debut by a new voice in fantasy fiction, The Conductors features the magic and mystery of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files written with the sensibility and historical setting of Octavia Butler’s Kindred: Introducing Hetty Rhodes, a magic-user and former conductor on the Underground Railroad who now solves crimes in post–Civil War Philadelphia.

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. To solve this mystery, they will have to face ugly truths all around them, including the ones about each other.

In this vibrant and original novel, Nicole Glover joins a roster of contemporary writers within fantasy, such as Victor LaValle and Zen Cho, who use speculative fiction to delve into important historical and cultural threads.

On-page representation: Black author, Black-led cast

Trigger and content warnings: racism, colourism, domestic abuse & violence, infertility themes, miscarriage (mentioned), pregnancy (mentioned), scars, physical injury (including burns), blood and gore depiction, death (of the ff: mother, father, friend, husband, sister, son), disappearance of a sister, knife violence, fire, torture, kidnapping, incarceration (mentioned), slavery, captivity, human trafficking, hanging/lynching (implied)


Review

Disclaimer: I received a digital review copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my thoughts and opinions on the book.

The Conductors is a sweeping tale of freedom and power set in Black communities of the post-Civil War era.

I have never read a book like this before, and everything is so new and fresh to me. My only literary reference to historical Black-led communities is Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and I am excited to expand what I know about them. Add some magic to the mix, and it’s something I will endeavor to finish no matter what.

It is this drive that kept me from marking this book as DNF. I love the characters and the world so much, but I have issues with plot and pacing. Though I am fully aware that the file I have is still up for corrections, I think that the big picture edits I believe are needed won’t be included in the finished copy.

First of all, I LOVE the characters! Everyone in the cast is so interesting, and I love how diversity in roles, backstories, and motivations is upheld here. We have former conductors in the Underground Railroad, slaves who are en route to the market, members of the uppercrust Black society, and so many more. I love how all of them are well-written, and the story goes on to to show how each is flawed, independent, and ultimately human. Glover does not fall on stereotypes to fill each character sheet, which I deeply appreciate.

I also love exploring the complex dynamics within their community! Most history books would have one–especially a non-American like me–believe that all Black people had the same kind of experience post-slavery. It is so interesting to see how vastly different Hetty and Benjy’s situation is from the new uppercrust lifestyle like Marianne and Eunice’s. The Conductors also does not shy away from presenting human trafficking that still continues as an open secret during that era, and I love how our main characters use magic to create sort of an alternative history where they hold much more power to change their fates. I wish we had more time to do this, though, since much of the page space is devoted to the central murder mystery case.

Much of what kept me from finishing this book is the clunky pacing. Usually, mystery plots are predictable due to genre conventions, so the challenge is to keep the reader turning pages with esgerness to solve the case alongside the characters. However, I don’t think the reveals were properly distributed within the plot. There were very many false leads and dead ends that I don’t know which thread is being developed fully. It is so frustrating to solve a case when I don’t understand the value of the clues I hold, and it does not help that there isn’t much of a narrative buildup that can help guide me along. It took me more than halfway through the book to be invested in the actual plot, and I’m not sure about the payoff I got when Hetty and Benjy finally wrap up their investigation.

In addition, the magic system is a bit muddy and unrefined. Though I appreciate that it can manifest differently depending on its wielders, I feel so lost trying to figure out the fundamental principles of its magic. There are spells, sigils, potions, and enchanted items, and I’m not sure how much they have in common and how these forms differ from each other. What kept me going is thinking of the magic as a concrete metaphor for power and not dwelling on its specifics. Maybe examples of Sorcery shown in an earlier part of the book would help me build a stronger frame of reference? I do wish that some rules will be included in the sequel.

Overall, I’m still glad I finished the book, and I think that the time I spent in this world is very much well-spent. I can’t wait to hear more about the characters’ next shenanigans in The Undertakers!

I think that it is the very high expectations I set for the book that keeps me from fully enjoying the book, but despite my misgivings, I will still definitely read the sequel. I am invested in the characters and the world, and I sincerely hope that any issues with plot and pacing will be fixed in the next book.


Let’s chat:

  • Have you read this book yet? I would love to hear your thoughts!
  • What kind of magic do you think you would wield in this universe?

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