A heist is central to the plot, but the objective isn’t wealth or glory; by the end, the goal is saving the people who are in the thick of this world with them, facing the same prejudice and discrimination, no matter how rich or poor ... Brightly painted with hues and shades of magic, set against a backdrop of jazz music and drag balls, Penelope has taken a specific historical place and moment and made them feel vibrantly alive. She expertly weaves threads of folklore, mythology, and Bible stories into the tapestry of the setting, creating a texture that ties the story to this world and its history while allowing the fantastic to breathe and flow. By giving readers Clara Johnson, a seer born with sight into the Other World who is nevertheless deeply grounded in the material world, she provides the perfect guide into this alternate moment in history ... while the fantasy heist setup sits at the core of the novel, and the story works within its confines, that label fails to capture the richness of both the story and the artfulness of Penelope’s writing. Like a jazz number that comes back to a chorus, changing the notes a bit each time, Penelope frequently flashes back to the childhood of one of the principal characters ... The setting sparkles and sings, and Clara’s no-nonsense, prickly attitude are heightened by the wonder that surrounds her—while at the same time, they’re grounded in the realities that many of her community face, whether at the hands of the Enigmas or poverty. And though she doesn’t intend to, Clara again emerges as a hero, simply from her determination to help those in need.
Penelope successfully blends a folkloric sense of the supernatural with a Gatsby-esque vision of the Roaring '20s in Washington, D.C's ‘s African American community ... a fascinating blend of the real and imagined ... In Penelope's hands, the glamour of all-Black masquerade balls, where bootleggers mingle with politicians and opera stars, is an act of defiance, both of the racial power structure of the day and of stereotypical depictions of African American life during this era ... The most effective aspect of The Monsters We Defy is how Penelope portrays the Black experience on its own terms. Even the magic is derived from a combination of African mythology and traditions from the African diaspora, particularly hoodoo. The result is a novel that is both a well-crafted fantasy romp (with a healthy dose of happily-ever-after romance) and a work of revisionist fiction that elevates a vital, oft-overlooked slice of history.
I enjoyed this book and particularly liked the historical details. It’s clear that the author knows DC well and she introduces storied figures from history into her tale ... Other period details like Model T cars and the popularity of jazz and of flapper dresses give the setting a historical feel, and attention to the history of Washington DC is another pleasure ... One of my main issues with the book was that Clara was less appealing than the supporting characters who aided her in the heist ... The writing is at its peak in a few flashback chapters interspersed between the chapters set in the book’s present day (1925). The book begins with one of these: Clara’s birth. The narration in these chapters is an omniscient voice wedded to African-American vernacular and I loved it ... Except for what I said above about Clara, my only significant criticisms are that the pacing is slow, and that although I enjoyed the book when I read it, I found it easy to put down when it was time to go to bed. But while it wasn’t a page-turner, it was still a nice way to pass the time ... Overall I enjoyed The Monsters We Defy and I recommend it to readers who want to read something fresh and different in the urban fantasy / paranormal genre.