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The Conductors by Nicole Glover

If you know me, you know there’s nothing I love more in fiction than found family. There’s almost nothing BUT found family in this book – the historical setting requires it. It’s a beautifully written, deeply explored immersive journey into post-Civil War life in the Black community. The magic woven throughout the story doesn’t make the setting seem fantastical or unlikely; it feels like a real picture of history, with an intriguing extra layer. When added to a setting that already contains multitudes – there are layers upon layers of nuance here, including colorism, class, education, experience, and more – the fantasy element of this historical fantasy seems wildly plausible. Even more intriguing is the way the magic system has been firmly set into the historical period; there are different magics for different people here, just like everything else in the world. And the glimpses into the overlap between the two, and the question of whether Sorcery is appropriation or something else entirely, is simply a quiet underlayment to the well-developed world – I loved the hints I saw that there is so much more to understand here, without taking away from what was needed to understand what was happening in the story itself. I want to read so much more in this world.

To be honest, the worldbuilding is what kept me reading this book at first; like many first books (uh, my own included), this one has a teeny issue with pacing – it starts slow. It wasn’t until chapter four or five that I finally found myself diving into the plot breathlessly, and the pacing completely redeemed itself after that – I drove straight through to the end. But even in the slower early chapters, the sense of this immense underlying world was enough to keep me intrigued. I REALLY hope that there’s more to come.

Let’s talk about the characters! I posted on Twitter that Hetty and Benjy are MY LIFE, and I stand by it. I absolutely adore them both. Their love story is profound and sweet at the same time, and weaves its way through the mystery plot with satisfying grace. We discover a significant chunk of their backstory through flashbacks, and it works unexpectedly well – every scene is full of action, and works so much better to show us the lives that led them to Philadelphia and community than any kind of infodump or dialogue-based explanation would have. And because every flashback gives us another key to the story – both the love story and the mystery – they don’t jar the reader out of the narrative at all, simply enhance it. Hetty is a delightful, complex character who also serves as a deft reminder that even exceptional people are still people, with inner worries, insecurities, and sometimes the urge to choose to run away. And Benjy is her perfect complement; like Hetty, we don’t know much about him at the beginning of the book, but by the end of the book he’s absolutely perfect. The way that these two people discover each other even though they’ve known each other all along is beautifully written.

The secondary characters here are all incredible as well. I want to make sure that I call out the extremely well-done gay and trans characters here – a perfectly-served reminder that LGBTQ+ people have been here all along. They fit into this historical setting like they belong, because they do. There are reminders that their road isn’t an easy one, but none of their stories are specifically about their queer natures. The friendships and relationships between all of the characters are explored with a great deal of care and also a deeply appreciated swath of realism. People aren’t perfect. But there’s such a strong community here, and the way all of the characters come together in service to each other is gorgeously done.

I won’t spoil anything, but the ending of this book is perhaps the best part, at least for me. It gave me some BIG emotions. It’s by turns joyous and heartbreaking, and captures the sense of bittersweet inevitability that is frequently missing from our whitewashed schoolroom histories and Duke-heavy historical romances. I sincerely hope I get to read more in this world.