The Conductors: Slow and muddy

The Conductors by Nicole Glover science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Conductors by Nicole Glover science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Conductors by Nicole Glover

The Conductors (2021), by Nicole Glover, has lots of elements I’d normally eat up like a buffet: a historical setting (late 1800s Philadelphia), a focus on social injustice, a murder mystery, magic systems. Unfortunately, the elements never cohered into a story that held my attention, making the novel a real struggle. I thought about giving up on it relatively early, but kept pushing through despite my instincts, probably helped by the fact that my Kindle wasn’t showing my progress despite my repeated attempts to force it to do so. Eventually, I picked it up on a different device, realized I’d hit the two-thirds point, and figuring that was more than fair, skimmed through the rest.

Henrietta (“Hetty”) and Benjy Rhodes are known as “The Conductors” for their fabled exploits leading slaves from captivity into the free states via the Underground Railroad. A number of those journeys also involve Hetty looking for her sister, lost to her when the two were separated after their own break for freedom. Now, roughly a decade later, Hetty and Benjy live in Philadelphia working as a seamstress and smith respectively, though really they spend their time employing their “Celestial” magic (the sort associated with POC, as opposed to whites’ “Sorcery”) and deductive skills to solve various types of cases for their community, whose troubles are typically given short shrift (to say the least) by the white police force/legal system.

When one of their friends turns up murdered, and worse inscribed with a curse, it sets them on an investigative path that calls into question some of the people in their own little community, including some of their closest friends. The main mystery narrative is interrupted regularly by flashbacks to their conductor days, showing their early lives, how they met, how they ferried people into freedom, how their present-day community formed, etc.The Conductors by Nicole Glover science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviews

As noted, the book never fully engaged me nor ever felt fully cohesive and clear. Much of the construction felt muddy, whether it was wondering why I was getting a particular scene, unclear relationships amongst people, a historic Philadelphia that didn’t feel multi-dimensional, or thinly created magic systems and world building. (The race-based magic never felt fully explained or mined for its potential, while the way the world differed from ours due to the magic never felt fully realized.) I never felt grounded in story or character, never felt immersed enough to forget I was reading a constructed artifice with an author manipulating characters and withholding information. Adding to the “muddy” nature of things was the sluggish pace and the strange lack of urgency (and acuity) on the part of the investigators. Many of the key elements were conveyed via dialog that sometimes felt forced, and the concern over the killer possibly being someone that they knew rang more like a plot idea than an outgrowth of characterization and world-building. Meanwhile, the prose was solid but not strong enough to compensate for other issues.

I never felt invested in the characters, intrigued by the murders, or immersed in the historical world, while the Celestial versus Sorcery magical systems felt like a tease of something that could have been so much more than it was. As such, it was a struggle from the very start, and I most likely would have given up at the 30-40% percent point had I known I’d reached it. The exception to all this were the flashback scenes, which were vivid and vibrant, as well as compelling, tense, and emotionally fraught and by far my favorite sections of the novel. These moments give me hope that Glover’s second book might show more promise, but I can’t recommend this one.

Published in March 2021. From a bold new voice in speculative fiction comes a vibrant historical fantasy of magic and murder set in the aftermath of the Civil War. Hetty Rhodes and her husband, Benjy, were Conductors on the Underground Railroad, ferrying dozens of slaves to freedom with daring, cunning, and magic that draws its power from the constellations. With the war over, those skills find new purpose as they solve mysteries and murders that white authorities would otherwise ignore. In the heart of Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward, everyone knows that when there’s a strange death or magical curses causing trouble, Hetty and Benjy are the only ones that can solve the case. But when an old friend is murdered, their investigation stirs up a wasp nest of intrigue, lies, and long-buried secrets- and a mystery unlike anything they handled before. With a clever, cold-blooded killer on the prowl testing their magic and placing their lives at risk, Hetty and Benjy will discover how little they really know about their neighbors . . . and themselves.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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4 comments

    • I didn’t know so while reading, and I just checked on Amazon and there’s no age target as usually noted with YA

      • The cover and your description were giving off a bit of a YA vibe. Apparently not, but I’m going to go explore.

        • Nope, not a word on the writer’s site or the publisher’s about it being YA. It looks like a fantastical murder mystery series in an historical setting. Now I know.

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