Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Thriller, Fantasy
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars
The stage is set in pre-second-world-war New York with an oracle, an assassin, and an underworld gang about to lose its alpha—all thriving in a be-bop jazz bar, brazenly ignoring the Prohibition. Phyllis Green, blessed with saints’ hands, is mob boss Victor Dernov’s executioner. Known to some as Victor’s angel, and to most as Victor’s knife, she goes by Phyllis LeBlanc in downtown Manhattan, meting out mob justice with her holster of knives.
That is until she meets Dev. Playing judge, jury, and executioner turns out to be a lot more complicated when she falls in love. Devajyoti Patil, bartender at The Pelican, is also blessed with saints’ hands – he can detect threats on a single touch. But unlike Phyllis, he does not use them to throw knives. Just when Phyllis believes she can act on her promise to Dev of never killing again, she is given a task that forces her to go back on her word.
Someone is killing people with “the hands” and leaving the corpses behind with bleeding stumps and clear signs of having involved them in some form of dark ritual. It’s obvious—they’re trying to steal the power of these hands. Victor’s lieutenant, Red Man, tells Phyllis that the murderer is Trent Sullivan, and that she must take him out.
Having grown up in an all-Black neighborhood, Phyllis has spent her whole adult life trying to pretend that she’s not. Owing to her lighter skin, she passes scrutiny in most segregated places in 1930s New York. She has even taken care to change her name, so no one can trace her back to her old neighborhood—it’s how she has survived. But a decade after she executes Sullivan, and Dev leaves her for it, she finds that her heritage is about to be revealed, and that, suddenly, her life depends on her proving her whiteness.
A lot of factors wrestle for priority as Dev returns unexpectedly to her life as she’s simultaneously given a new assignment. Not to mention, the draft creeps up and starts upending the lives of everyone she holds dear.
The struggles of people of color before World War II that changed society in many irreversible ways are depicted in sincere detail in this book. Skin trumps economic status as Phyllis, Dev, and their friends find themselves increasingly vulnerable as they try to get away from the criminal element that has protected them so far.
It is really promising to find that BIPOC literature is finally making its way into the limelight. The story is set at a time when very few would think to write a novel with a black woman and an Indian man as the lead duo. Hopefully, we are at a time when we can look back at these immortal years from a different perspective than we are used to.
Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC
in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.