The Monsters We Defy is a book about demons—or as Clara Johnson calls them, Enigmas. Clara was born with the ability to see and interact with Enigmas, making her highly sought after as a sort of broker between these dangerous spirits and the people who seek their help, costs be damned. Clara is all too aware of the severity of those costs: The only reason she has continued to act as spiritual go-between is to satisfy a compulsion from her own deal with an Enigma, made years ago. But when young people in her orbit start becoming listless or disappearing, she is dragged into a sordid conspiracy that could wreak havoc in the mortal world and must fight for both the survival of her peers and her own freedom.
Author Leslye Penelope successfully blends a folkloric sense of the supernatural, derived from sources such as Ethiopia’s Kebra Nagast, with a Gatsby-esque vision of the Roaring ’20s in Washington, D.C’s ‘s African American community. Replete with historical figures, including a youthfully insouciant Langston Hughes, the unflappably paternal Carter G. Woodson, who founded the Journal of Negro History, and even a cameo from W.E.B. Du Bois, The Monsters We Defy is a fascinating blend of the real and imagined. Even Clara is based on a real person: Clara Minor Johnson, a Black teenager who killed a white policeman in self-defense when she was a teenager. Penelope seamlessly weaves the historical figure into the character of Clara and her world of spirit magic. Throughout, she emphasizes the tenuous nature of Black high society in this era, existing within a white-dominated world it can never fully penetrate but cannot afford to ignore. 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.