- The Good: Escaped slaves who solve mysteries in post Civil War Philly
- The Bad: Slow plot, low stakes, unrealized magical system
- The Literary: Slice of life of the personal difficulties of former slaves in their new lives
After the Civil War, Hetty Rhodes and her husband Benjy settle in Philadephia, solving mysteries in the black community with the aid of their magical skills. They met after they had both escaped slavery, becoming conductors on the Underground Railroad, ushering other slaves north to freedom. When they find one of their own friends dead in an alley with a cursed magical symbol etched into his corpse, they begin to suspect, and reveal secrets about, their closest friends and each other.
I really enjoy the mashup of historical fiction and fantasy, with the different types of magic used by black and white people used to further emphasize the legacy of slavery and oppression. In this world, Hetty was born a slave with magical abilities, and in addition to working for her masters, she wore a silver collar designed to punish if she used magic, which also marked her as unfit for reproduction. Having no inherent magic of their own, whites feared the magic of blacks. Eventually, white people developed sorcery, a magic requiring waving wands about and chanting strange words, and prohibited any black person learn or utilize it.
The murder-mystery takes second place to the exploration of Hetty’s world. Only a few years following the Civil War, Hetty and her friends struggle to create a normal life. Almost every former slave has been separated from family members by plantation owners or escape, and many do not know if their siblings, parents, or even spouses are alive or dead. Some move on; some cannot. And while Hetty and Benjy press for change, many ascribe the underground railroad and the push to vote as the reason for so much death and suffering in their community when all they crave now is peace.
Hetty and Benjy’s marriage is a match of convenience. They’re a great team, and enjoy one another’s company, but Hetty begins to harbor romantic feelings for her husband. The possibly unrequited love is an interesting addition to the story. However, Benjy’s actions towards his wife are clearly warm, even if he hides things from her. While Hetty visits her many friends, drinks tea, and catches up on gossip to investigate her cases, she notes all the different types of marriages she sees among her friends, giving a ground-level female perspective of life at home.
Unfortunately, the magic itself is not so much as system as it is a highly individual interpretation of star or astrology symbols, which leaves the reader feeling rather lost about whether a charm will protect or harm the intended party. Combined from African, West Indian, and Native American folklore, Hetty’s mother taught her herb brews, songs that heal, and constellation sigils. The arrow star sigil levitates objects. Orion lights lanterns. Capricorn controls water. But Taurus and Phoenix are also called as weapons, literal animals that fight.
Recommended for fans of subtle speculative fiction that explores history and race!