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.
I want to start off by saying a few positive things about The Conductors. Firstly, I am not an #ownvoices reviewer so can’t speak to the historical accuracy nor how the legacy of slavery and the Civil War truly impacts black people, but I really enjoyed that this book included a wide variety of black characters. The Conductors features rich people and poor people, former slaves and free settlers, those who are still haunted by the Civil War and those who are doing their best to move on. Every character has unique and complex motivations, and is dealing with the cards they’ve been handed in their own way: there is very clearly no single post-Civil War mentality. When I read the synopsis, I thought this book sounded like a unique perspective on Civil War era literature, and the characters, at least, lived up to that ideal.
I also love marriages of convenience as a trope, so I really enjoyed Hetty and Benjy’s relationship and watching them slowly come to the realisation that it meant more to them than they were willing to admit, even if they were too scared of losing each other to do anything about it. I was definitely grinning like an idiot when they finally figured it out.
So why didn’t I rate this book more than two stars?
Frankly, because I was endlessly confused for most of it. The plot tries to do too much overall and I couldn’t keep up with all the new plot threads. More relevantly, however, there is a magic system in this book which seems to be loosely based on astrology (but with some healing potions also thrown in), but it’s never really clear how it works, who can wield magic, or what the boundaries of the system are. A lot of the magic-based scenes are hard to follow as a result. It’s also mentioned that white people practice different magic to black people, and that black people with ‘too much’ magic were routinely enslaved because they were perceived as a threat, but this was never really explored and I couldn’t understand the differences except that white people waved wands about like they were in Harry Potter. I thought the idea was hugely creative and could have been an interesting allegory for race relations, but it really needed a lot more fleshing out.
The lack of world-building also extends to the historical setting itself: this felt like 1800s Philadelphia in name only (and a few honorary mentions of wagons). I didn’t necessarily need a story that was only about how much it sucked to be black/a woman/queer historically, but there was very little sense of context. There is a lot of anachronistic dialogue. There are passing references to queer couples, women seeking to escape domestic abuse, and divides in who has access to resources like education, but the impacts of these issues are never fully explored, even though we are still feeling the after-effects of 19th century inequalities today. I appreciated that this is a story about a black community, rather than focusing on the white oppressors, but it felt like there was a gap in the story that could have been explored more.
A lot of these issues feel like common criticisms of debut authors still figuring out how to balance plot/characters/world-building, and I hope that’s the case, because there were a lot of interesting ideas in this book that that never quite made it to the surface. I’m not sure I’ll read any sequels to this particular story, but I’ll keep an eye out for what else Nicole Glover writes. I’m also keen to read more fantasy novels based on this time period, and hope this might inspire a few more.
Note: I received an ARC from John Joseph Adams in exchange for a review. The Conductors will be released on 2 March 2021.