Book Review: Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Amidst the whir of city life, a girl from Harlem is drawn into the glittering underworld of Manhattan, where she’s hired to use her knives to strike fear amongst its most dangerous denizens.

But the ghosts from her past are always by her side—and history has appeared on her doorstep to threaten the people she loves most.

Can one woman ever sacrifice enough to save an entire community?

Trouble the Saints is a dazzling, daring novel—a magical love story, a compelling chronicle of interracial tension, and an altogether brilliant and deeply American saga.

TW: Racism, description of a lynching that happened in the past, violence and murders, many scenes with descriptions of blood

This historical fantasy noir with supernatural elements is so far away from my comfort zone or anything that I ever read, that even I’m surprised to see it on my tbr. But I was very intrigued when I first saw the cover because it’s super pretty and I guess I just wanted to try something different. But now I don’t know what to say. 

The prose was beautiful at places, but also harder to understand at others, overall taking a little more effort from my side to understand the meaning behind it all. We are also pretty much thrown in the middle of things and have to figure out what’s happening in this world on the cusp of WWII where certain people of color seem to have magical powers. We also follow three POVs, but consecutively which is something I’ve never read before, and I actually enjoyed how they could feel like three different stories but also so very connected. The characters are compelling, though not always likable, but I was quite interested to know what was gonna happen to them. And what a pleasant surprise it was to find that one of them is a biracial Hindu character, whose beliefs influence how he perceives his magical gift.

While the story and writing are one thing, it’s the thematic elements of the book that stood out. As an America during late 30s/early 40s, racism is very much alive and we see it in small microaggressions to bigger scarier moments. We also see biracial characters – both white passing and not – as well as Black characters try and navigate this world where they may have some magic of their own, but ultimately they are powerless in the face of white supremacy. We also witness the effects of generational trauma caused by slavery and everything after that, and how this trauma influences the actions of different people in myriad unexpected ways. There is also the underlying theme that it’s not enough to carve out a safe place for ourselves in a world that makes us powerless, but it’s also important that we fight to make the world better and maybe take some of that power back with whatever resources we have. We owe this to the ancestors who suffered unspeakable horrors which many didn’t survive. 

In the end, I honestly don’t know how to articulate what I felt about this book. If you are a fan of noir, enjoy reading historical stories through the lens of people of color living a tough life in those times, don’t mind some purple prose and like your fantasy to have strong themes – then you might enjoy this book. But it also has mob bosses, dirty cops and politicians, and undercover operations; so be prepared for a good amount of gore and violence. 

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