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.
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.