Book Review : The Conductors

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review : The ConductorsThe Conductors by Nicole Glover
on March 2nd 2021
Genres: Fantasy, Historical, Urban Fantasy
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Source: NetGalley

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.

The Conductors asks the very intriguing question: what if the conductors of the underground railroad had magical powers? Unfortunately, the answer is disappointingly vague. However, I still found myself very interested by the amalgamation of historical fiction, murder mystery, magic, and a bit of romance. Despite the intriguing nature of this mixture, I found that in trying to do so many things and genres, that The Conductors didn’t really succeed on doing any single thing with aplomb.


There was a long history to the art of Sorcery, with convoluted rules about wand waving and chanting strange words that sounded made up….One thing remained consistent: Sorcery was for white folks. Mostly because there were laws that prevented anyone who wasn’t white from learning. Some of those laws were formalities that confirmed what generations of spilled blood already made taboo. A wand in hand, a whisper of an incantation, or even a glance at a spellbook meant losing everything you held dear — and if you were lucky, you died before that happened.


Taking place after the civil war, The Conductors follows husband and wife Benjy and Hetty as they solve crimes in the Philadelphia area that white authorities won’t touch. The novel doesn’t really get to the nitty gritty about why exactly the white authorities won’t investigate these crimes, but readers can infer that has to do with racism. And the racism isn’t limited to these crimes, but also extends to the magic system. African Americans are able to use Celestial magic, consisting of star sigils from the Constellations. Of course, during slavery, this often resulted in worse punishments and control for the magic users, who were forced to wear collars that could suppress magic and punish those who used it. The other type of magic is sorcery, which is illegal for African Americans to use for some reason unknown to me. At first, I thought it was just another means of control that white slave owners used, but even freed African Americans are not allowed to use sorcery, for fear of death or worse, and I have no specific reason why.


“I promise I won’t do anything to you, unless you plan to be difficult.”

“Have you not heard the gossip? I’m always difficult.”


The novel is narrated by Hetty, whom I instantly liked. She is a tough, no nonsense woman who isn’t afraid to use her magic or to ask the tough questions. We learn more about her past and how she teamed up with her husband Benjy through jarring interludes to the time when they were conductors serving in the Underground Railroad. I found that these parts of the novel, which showed them bringing a lot of runaway slaves to safety in the North, sadly didn’t add much to The Conductors as a whole. I was shocked that such dangerous and selfless feats didn’t come with more tension or fear. Instead, Hetty and Benjy using magic to fight their battles seemed to take away a lot of the suspense and risk. These scenes from The Conductors just couldn’t compare to the real-life history or even other straight-up historical fiction novels. All I really got from these scenes was Benjy and Hetty were magic users, which I already knew, and that they had a knack for getting themselves out of very bad situations, which I also knew due to their current notoriety in the present. The only other thing I learned was that they remained close friends and found family with every person they rescued, with all of them settling down in Philadelphia—something I found a bit unrealistic.


As someone who lives in Pennsylvania and has enjoyed visiting Philadelphia on occasion, I can understand the appeal of the city, on the one hand. But the author doesn’t really describe anything about the setting of the city, or why it is so great of a place to live. I would have been interested to hear more about how it treated freed slaves, the kind of opportunities available for African Americans, and just more about the setting in general during the time period. There was nothing about the beautiful cobblestone streets or the appearance of buildings where the characters lived or visited. For a city with as much character as Philadelphia, I felt this was a really big missed opportunity. Surely if everyone Hetty and Benjy rescued from slavery settled down there, it must be pretty great, after all. 


The first person they rescued from life as a slave was Charlie, whom they find dead in alley way with the cursed sigil branded on his body. I was immediately floored by this mystery of who killed Charlie and why, and what the curse sigil meant. But unfortunately this murder mystery does not have the best pacing. Even with the slower pace and the many twists and turns that seem to have almost nothing to do with the mystery at hand, I was really interested in The Conductors, and never wanted to put it down. Sadly, I was less than thrilled with the big reveal of the committer of the crime, finding his/her motive weak, and the final confrontation a bit lackluster. I think the main reason for this was that it was super hard to keep the cast of characters straight, so I didn’t really have a solid idea of who this person was that committed the crime, as they had very little page space in a very interconnected cast. Many of the characters in the found family of Philadelphia were cousins, married, or worked together.  I really could have used some sort of appendix, as it didn’t help that the author introduced many of the characters like we already knew them, telling us simply that Hetty was close friends with them. 


“I wanted him part of every story that could be told of my life,” Hetty admitted, “and these feelings ruin things.”


Despite the fact that it was so difficult to keep the cast of characters and how they were related straight, I really am a sucker for found family and gobbled up these parts of The Conductors. I also really loved the representation in it, which was not limited to an entire cast full of POC, but also included a trans character and gay couple. I also really enjoyed the main relationship of the novel, that of Hetty and Benjy’s. When I read the book blurb, and it said the couple was married, I didn’t expect to have a lot of romance, and especially not a slow burn. But it turns out that Hetty and Benjy simply married for convenience and propriety, as it wasn’t proper for Hetty to be roaming around as a single, unmarried woman. So it was really enjoyable to watch Hetty realize, to her own dismay, that she had caught feelings for her husband, Benjy. I loved watching it unfold, despite the fact that Benjy didn’t get nearly as much development as his wife, and was a bit of a flat character. He may have been flat, but his feelings for his wife were anything but. 


Ultimately, I really did enjoy The Conductors. It was a very interesting reading experience and I especially enjoyed the fresh take on magic, even if it left me with more questions than answers and lacked the explanation of other fantasy novels. I thought that I was mainly reading The Conductors for the historical fiction aspect, as well as that of the murder mystery and magic, but I ended up staying for the characters. The romance was also a pleasant surprise for me. Sadly, I think The Conductors just tried to do so many things at once, that things, especially character development and the magic system, were not given enough time.   I would definitely read another novel by the author Nicole Glover, as this was her debut, and I can only see her writing improving from here. 

Book Review : The Conductors - Blogging with Dragons

Posted March 1, 2021 in Book Reviews, Fantasy

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