Saturday, June 18, 2022

Trouble the Saints

Alaya Dawn Johnson
Completed 6/18/2022, Reviewed 6/18/2022
2 stars

I had read four of the five books nominated for the World Fantasy Award for 2021 and loved them all.  When the award was given, it went to the book I hadn’t read.  So, I thought the winner must be really good.  I guess my hopes were too high because when I finally got around to reading it, I didn’t get the hype.  Through most of the book, I was bored out of my mind, which really disappointed me considering the setting, characters, and themes.  It’s a noir novel that takes place shortly before the American entry into World War II.  The characters are mostly African American and they have gifts called hands associated with their hands that give them something of an edge in an otherwise hostile, white-dominated society.  But I struggled with finding a plot and having empathy for the main characters.  It finally came together in the last fifty pages or so, but that didn’t make up for what I felt was a nearly incomprehensible and tedious first three hundred pages.

Phyllis, aka Pea, is an assassin for a Russian mobster.  Her hands have a mastery with knives and mete out justice to those she is assigned to kill.  The book begins with her refusing an assignment to kill a woman despite the woman trying to kill Pea. Instead, she focuses on trying to kill Victor, the Russian mobster for whom she works.  Pea falls back in love with Dev, a British Indian undercover cop who has infiltrated Victor’s organization.  Before Victor dies, he curses Dev and Pea.  The second part of the book is from Dev’s point of view and focuses on his struggle with his job versus the deep friendships he made in the mob and his love for Pea.  The third part focuses on Tamara, the snake dancer from Victor’s club.  Her hands are that she’s an oracle, telling fortunes from a special deck of playing cards.  What she sees throws her into a moral dilemma between saving Pea and protecting herself. 

Out of the three main characters, I came closest to having empathy for Tamara.  That’s probably because there was more of a plot to the third part, and her struggle is relatable.  It’s summed up perfectly in a riddle she tells.  Two people die, one a good person destined for heaven and one a bad person destined for hell.  The good person is given a choice.  If he lets the bad person go to hell, he’ll go to heaven.  But he can save the bad person from hell by choosing purgatory and thus they will both go to purgatory.  So does he go to heaven and have to live eternity knowing he condemned someone to hell or suffer in purgatory knowing he saved the person from eternity in hell?  It’s a powerful question and Tamara does not find the answer easy.  But it does exemplify the love and relationship the three characters have for one another.  

Through most of the book, I felt that there wasn’t much plot.  It jumped back and forth in time, describing the trio’s current situation as well as their relationships while Victor was still alive.  It told vignettes that help with understanding the characters’ motivations.  I can deal with character studies, but I still need something interesting to happen.  And I didn’t find anything really interesting in the events of the book until the end.

One positive thing I can say about this book is that it’s beautifully written.  I really liked the prose with its descriptions and word choices.  I guess I can say it’s a pretty book about not so pretty characters and situations.  Another is the topics brought out by the plot, the lack of choices and freedoms of black people in the forties, the need for something to overcome their difficult existence, and the dilemmas they must bear in their daily lives.  

I give this book two stars out of five.  I just couldn’t get past the boring nature of it.  I don’t need continuous action in a book, but I need some kind of movement of plot and empathy for the characters. If I were picking the WFAs, I would have chosen Piranesi by Susanna Clarke or The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones.  Looking at the ratings on several sites, this book gets as many four and five star reviews as it does two and three.  It’s definitely mixed.  So if the book sounds interesting to you, you may like this.  I didn’t. 

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