Inventively mixing mystery, magic, and alternate history, Glover’s nail-biting debut takes readers to Reconstruction era Philadelphia. Henrietta “Hetty” and Benjamin “Benjy” Rhodes—both adept at sigil magic that draws on the constellations—are famed conductors for the Vigilance Society, which shepherded enslaved Black people to freedom along the Underground Railroad. Stories of their trips into the South are legendary in their Philadelphia community even a decade after the Civil War. Now, Hetty and Benjy use their magical and analytical skills as detectives, dealing with missing person cases, murders, and other crimes the white police force chooses to overlook. But when one of their friends turns up dead and their suspicions fall close to home, they’ll need to work out who in their community is not who they say they are. The pace is relaxed but the tension steadily builds as Glover weaves each detail into a satisfying mystery. Frequent flashbacks to Hetty and Benjy’s thrilling exploits as conductors on the Underground Railroad reveal how Hetty’s tough choices during the Civil War led to her life today. Readers will be surprised but gratified by an ending that shows just how past actions inform the present in unexpected ways. Glover is a writer to watch.
Most fantasy novels don’t begin with fugitive slave ads, and most fugitive slave ads don’t warn of
dangerous magical practitioners. But Glover’s debut defies many expectations. The protagonist,
Henrietta Rhodes, is a no-nonsense private investigator and fixer in an alternate version of
Philadelphia. With her husband of convenience, Hetty uses powerful magic and deductive
reasoning to protect her free Black community. But when confronted with a mystery of dark
magic and murder that shakes their foundations, Hetty needs to look for outside help. The
Conductors juggles a lot of elements, including segregated magic systems, romance, a large
cast of characters, and several deep, dark secrets. Hetty and Benjy’s relationship as they work
together to find out more about the crimes is a highlight of the novel, as is the constellation based
magic system that Hetty and her friends use. The magical Reconstruction setting should
appeal to fantasy and history buffs alike, especially for fans of Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark
(2020) and An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole (2017).
DEBUT Set at the end of the Civil War, this magical first novel follows Hetty and Benjy, runaways who ferry people to safety from slavecatchers, as well as solve crimes, often with the aid of celestial magic. Chapters alternate between Hetty and Benjy’s life in Philadelphia aiding people in finding lost loved ones, and Hetty’s journeys on the Underground Railroad, with Benjy in tow, to find her sister Esther. When an acquaintance whom they previously rescued from slavery is found dead in an alley, the novel turns into a murder mystery. Glover’s intricate writing succeeds in bringing Hetty and Benjy to life, and shines as members of their social circle become suspects. While later chapters are at times meandering, the story gains momentum as Hetty aims to uncover if this murder, and others that follow, is a coincidence or part of a pattern. Along the way, she discovers that Benjy has secrets of his own, as do several of her friends. Along with celestial magic, sorcery comes into play, often coming back to haunt Hetty and Benjy, especially at the suspenseful ending.
VERDICT Blending historical fantasy and mystery, this fast-paced debut with predominantly Black characters will engage fans eager for a combination of each.
Library Reads – March 2021
The Conductors by Nicole Glover (John Joseph Adams/Mariner, $15.99, 9780358197058). “Hetty and Benjy meet as Underground Railroad conductors, settling in Pennsylvania where they’re known for their celestial magic. Glover does an incredible job of world building in this supernatural mystery. Her cast is almost exclusively Black, and the characters are rich, with Hetty and Benjy’s relationship showcased as a lovely progression of romantic ideals. For readers of N.K. Jemisin and Victor LaValle.” –Rachel Reddick, Denver Public Library, Denver, Colo.
Glover’s charming sequel to The Conductors digs deeper into the captivating Black society of a post–Civil War Philadelphia that’s infused with celestial magic. Magical married detective duo Hetty and Benjy Rhodes have enjoyed a quiet life of late. Their new funeral home isn’t seeing much business and their most recent case, involving fires spontaneously sparking in their neighborhood and claiming the life of Raimond Duval, resolved almost too easily—until Raimond’s son, Valentine, also dies, and questions about an old mission from Hetty and Benjy’s days as conductors on the Underground Railroad resurface. Overnight, what seemed a simple investigation turns into a cryptic cipher the couple must puzzle through. Layers of intrigue and tension build into a gripping whodunit, while drama within Hetty’s group of friends and tender moments between Hetty and Benjy offer juicy character beats. The easy momentum will keep both new and returning readers racing along to the end. It’s fun, twisty, and richly detailed.
The sequel to Glover’s historical mystery/fantasy The Conductors picks up where it left off with magic-practicing detectives Hetty and Benjy, a Black formerly enslaved couple in post–Civil War Philadelphia who have recently become undertakers. As in the first book, Hetty is haunted by ghosts of the past and the disappearance of her sister, but this time there is something else unfolding—a series of fires throughout the city, followed by the mysterious deaths of Raimond Duval and his son. As they search for a link between the fires and the Duval deaths, Hetty and Benjy learn of a false spell book that may have fallen into the wrong hands, and it becomes clear that someone from their past is on their trail. Characters from The Conductors return and new ones are introduced, but Glover’s latest can be read as a standalone.
VERDICT Glover has written another fast-paced story of luck, fate, and betrayal. Readers will be engrossed by its celestial magic, hidden tunnels leading to unexpected places, and cliffhanger ending.
Hetty Rhodes never met a problem she couldn’t solve. And when she gets into trouble, her husband, Benjy, calms her down and helps her out. But the couple has never faced so many crises at once. There are murders, of course. And arson. A few secret societies. Don’t forget an unintelligible cypher that could lead to a fabulous treasure. Although The Undertakers is the sequel to The Conductors (2021), it works well as a standalone book. The novel covers multiple interconnected mysteries with humor and warmth. It also expands the cast of characters that fill out the Rhodes’ found family and the city of Philadelphia, making the city feel like a character itself. A constellation-based magic system is heavily featured (especially in the many action scenes), and recalls the use of stars by enslaved people as navigational aids. Hetty and Benjy’s camaraderie is the real star of the show, no matter how many spells they fire off at assailants. The Undertakers’ historical fantasy vibe will appeal to fans of Alyssa Cole’s Loyal League series and Maurice Broaddus’ Buffalo Soldier (2017).