The Conductors is set in post Civil War, Philadelphia and is firmly within a genre of historical fiction that has a whisper of magic. Benjy and Hetty are a married couple, united in their purpose. They are renowned, ten years on from the end of the civil war, as conductors – guides who helped slaves escape the south through the Underground Railroad. Interestingly I had only recently come across the railroad when reading another book about magic set in an historical context – Alix E Harwood’s The Once and Future Witches. Hetty and Benjy used celestial magic to aid their rescues and for this they use sigils, which are usually a pictorial symbol of a god or spirit, but here are a symbol of their desired outcome. Ten years on, they use their magic to solve murders and missing person’s cases, particularly those with black victims where discriminatory authorities may not have investigated properly, even in the more forward thinking Northern US states. Their skills are frequently called upon in their district of Philadelphia but this time is different, this time the murder victim is an old friend and they will have to investigate within their own community.
Trying to investigate and unearth who can’t be trusted amongst their own friends and neighbours is really tough, especially when their suspicions start to take them very close to home. They have to use all their magical powers and experience, because stirring up secrets buried for this long turns out to be very dangerous for the pair. How much do they really know about their friends and neighbours? Trying to bring together historical facts and fiction can be hard enough for a writer, but to stir in fantasy and magic too takes great skill. The author must get us to feel like we’re in the past, but a past that’s brought alive by magic. The balance has to be perfect, or the end result can feel messy and chaotic. Instead this feels fresh and leaps off the page vividly. I was drawn in quite early on, by the characters and the incredible world the author has built – especially the fantasy side. It moves slowly at first, which draws the reader in, but also allows us to settle into these characters and their world before letting the rest unfold. Then when it does, the story is believable, rich and vivid. I believed in this couple’s relationship and I was invested in them as characters. So, when the tension did start to build, I was hooked – hoping they would solve the case and emerge unscathed. I thought the magical explanation for systemic racism was interesting and I would be fascinated to see how that resolves in future novels. This is definitely a writer to watch.
Meet The Author
NICOLE GLOVER works as a UX researcher in Virginia. She believes libraries are magical places and problems seem smaller with a cup of tea in hand. Her life outside of books include bicycles, video games, and baking the perfect banana bread. The Conductors is her debut novel. She can be found at nicole-glover.com
The film rights to this novel have been bought by Queen Latifah.
My experience of finding these two novels by Rosie Thomas shows that the old cliché ‘never judge a book by its’ cover’ does sometimes apply. I was browsing on my kindle (a lethal pastime) and looking through my recommendations when I came across Daughter of the House. The cover had a magical, ‘circus’ feel that I loved so I had to discover more. It had an historical setting pre- WWI onward; a period I’d been drawn to that year. It also promised a brave, enlightened woman at the centre of the story about growing up in an unconventional musical hall family. I bought it based on cover alone, then realised it was the second in a series of books.The first was The Illusionists and I knew from the cover of top hats, decks of cards and magic wands that this was the series for me. It’s rare for me to find a magical novel set in the late Victorian period that I haven’t read. The title seemed familiar though and it was only the next morning that I found (among the many piles of books that litter the corners of my house) I had a hardback copy of the same novel, but had never picked it up to read. The cover was very different, depicting a bridge over an almost impressionistic river scene, that told me nothing about the contents inside. A friend had bought me the book when it first came out, but due to that cover and the lack of a synopsis on the back it kept being recycled to the bottom of the TBR pile. It showed me a difference between buying physical books and kindle copies. I am often alerted to unusual and highly enjoyable novels via kindle store or apps like Goodreads that I wouldn’t necessarily pick up in a book shop due to the cover. Of course the bonus was that I now had two great novels to read back to back and I was not disappointed by either of them.
Set in 1885 the first novel follows the story of Eliza who is a young woman limited by lack of money whose only choices for the future seem to be the domesticity of an advantageous marriage (an idea she finds suffocating) or a degrading downward spiral towards life on the streets. Despite the massive social changes happening in fin de siècle London, women have less chance of making their fortune and living life on their own terms. Then she meets the charismatic and ambitious illusionist Devil Wix. Devil is haunted by traumatic events in his childhood, but is determined to become a household name and successful entrepreneur in the theatre world. We follow Devil’s mission as he puts together a band of quirky misfits to put on the greatest show London has ever seen in the run down Palmyra Theatre. During the 12 years covered by the novel Devil is by turns alluring, brilliant and often comical. However, from his friend’s and Eliza’s point of view he can be elusive, maddening and deceptive when he wants to be. Somehow though, the reader is able to forgive him anything. Perhaps this is because we are charmed by him in the same way Eliza is. Two friends work alongside Devil. His magician friend Carlos and set/props designer Jasper. Carlos is a dwarf in stature, but has mighty magical ambitions of his own and with Devil creates new and memorable illusions to stun audiences. Jasper is more of a scientist who tinkers away in his workshop creating the props for the illusions, but has also designed an automaton he names Lucy. As soon as Eliza comes into their world it is as if the circle of friends is complete and they work together to create a magical show. Although it seems inevitable that they will be together, Devil and Eliza’s courtship is a slow dance. Their budding relationship sees Eliza step outside what is thought to be respectable for a Victorian woman and embark upon an alternative life she never thought possible. For Devil the relationship brings him the stability he has never had and a partner in work and life who can match him for determination, ambition and creativity.
The magical and more supernatural elements of the novel are balanced beautifully with the historical period detail. Eliza chooses to live in a women’s hostel and work for a living even before she becomes involved with the theatre crowd. This is a bold, modern choice that tells us a lot about her character. The author uses Eliza’s sister as the contrasting Victorian ideal of ‘The Angel in the House’. Eliza’s visits to her sister’s home show us that traditional Victorian domestic life, but while Eliza loves her nieces and nephews she doesn’t envy her sister’s position in society and often seems relieved to return to her unconventional life. She treads a very fine line between what is and isn’t respectable by socialising in bars with Devil, Carlos and Jasper, staying alone with Devil in his flat, becoming a life model at the art school and performing on the stage. She is confounded by her need for Devil to be faithful and exclusive to her.
We also see economic change and social mobility throughout the novel. Devil promotes his shows in a way that has never been done before. First he utilises Eliza’s art student friends to create mysterious adverts across the city, that develop a buzz about his show. He then creates street illusions that are easy to transport and perform, then performs these ‘pop-up’ illusions in the street, handing out leaflets to stunned onlookers. By choosing his streets carefully he attracts wealthy audiences who are happy to spend money and this ensures the theatre is packed night after night. Due to this method of promoting his theatre, and the different audience he attracts, Devil changes what is acceptable as entertainment in upper class circles. Whereas music hall was thought to be low culture and only for the working classes, Devil exploits the human need to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ and makes his theatre the place to be seen.. His entrepreneurial skills result in an upward mobility for his family so they can live in a beautiful area of London and have more opportunities that he had. This is where the story develops into the second novel and into a background of even more turbulent times in the early 20th Century.
Daughter of the House centres on Devil and Eliza’s daughter Zenobia (known to the family as Nancy) against the backdrop of WWI, the Suffragette movement and the decline of music hall. The novel opens as the family embark upon a boat trip and tragedy strikes when the captain decides they must return to port because of a storm. The boat crashes into the marina and it is a fight for survival for Devil and Eliza and all of their children. Thomas creates a beautiful metaphor here in Nancy’s fight to stay above the water as her large Victorian skirts and petticoat become water-logged and start dragging her under. This foreshadows Nancy need to live a different life and break free of Victorian expectations of women, perhaps even more radically than her mother did. In the struggle Nancy not only saves herself, but her brother too and it is here we see the beginnings of her resilience and determination. It is also here that we see the first glimpse of what she calls her ‘Uncanny’ – the ability to see beyond the physical world. Nancy fights against this unique gift and doesn’t want anyone to know about her ability. Yet it is because of this accident that family friend Mr Feather does become aware of her abilities. As his beloved sister is lost in the accident, he begs Nancy to foresee where she is and this episode sets off an obsession that never goes away.
The Palmyra theatre is struggling and Devil has been hiding the true extent of their financial difficulties from his family. Eliza’s growing role as a mother has meant taking time away from managing the theatre and Devil does not have her administrative or financial skills. Eliza loves her children, but is frustrated in the very role she never really wanted. Meanwhile Devil flounders in his management of the Palmyra, making bad financial decisions and failing to provide what modern audiences want to see. As the crisis deepens Nancy becomes aware that her gift, hidden until now, might be the only answer to her family’s problems. The late Victorian appetite for mesmerism, hypnosis and spiritualism has continued into the 20th Century and Nancy’s gift soon begins to fill the theatre. So, as WWI draws to a close, the Palmyra is once again playing to packed houses as grieving families in their thousands want to find their lost sons, fathers and husbands still lying unfound in the battlefields of France. Thomas shows the social and historical change of three difficult decades so cleverly especially the wake of WWI as women become more in control of their lives and a country grieves a generation lost. For those who survived, the need for to forget the horrors of war can be seen at the raucous country house parties of Nancy’s theatre friends. The breakdown of class barriers becomes apparent as Nancy’s brother transcends his family’s social class, becoming an officer in the army and attracting a wife from an aristocratic family. Alternative ways of living are explored as the author shows us more women living alone, and Nancy’s gay best friends who have openly set up home together. Yet, we also see what post-war living could be like for the lower classes who acquired injuries, but can’t afford adequate care or rehabilitation. Nancy’s brother returns home with shell-shock and finds coping with the outside world beyond his capabilities, instead finding solace in his garden.
The book explores Nancy’s struggle with a rare and beautiful gift that can also be terrifying and unexpected. Her rivalry with Mr Feather highlights the darker side of clairvoyance and ultimately ends in unwanted confrontation. We see the need in people who desperately want to hear from their lost loved one only to be disappointed. A disappointment that can develop into an obsession and an inability to move forward in the grieving process. Nancy wrestles to maintain the purity and honesty of her gift; never pretending or creating hope where there is none. Audiences fail to realise that she is unable to control her gift. It isn’t like picking up a telephone, she doesn’t know who or what will come through. However, audiences want the reassurance that they were seeking, or the guarantee their loved one lives on somewhere in the afterlife and is waiting for them. Nancy tries to give no promises and does not want to offer false reassurance, if forced to give the exact promise they seek, she feels she has betrayed herself and her gift. This is the difference between true clairvoyance and show business and for Nancy they are uneasy bedfellows. What she sees is not always spectacular nor the happy ending an audience might be hoping for. This dilemma rang true for me as something all people with these gifts might face and it shows that making money from her ‘Uncanny’ is not as going to be as easy as her father’s magic tricks; if she is going to do it with integrity.
I would recommend reading both of these books, but they do stand-alone too. The Wix family are entertaining and intriguing, the historical backdrop is well researched, and even the smaller characters are well written and memorable. Carlos’s determination to overcome his disability is inspiring and his friendship with Devil, like all showbiz partnerships, is full of ups and downs. Eliza’s sister and brother-in-law are there to provide a contrast to the Wix’s unconventional relationship, but their characters are still well-rounded and the relationship between the sisters feels real. Eliza’s realisation that having children is all consuming and life-changing creates an unexpected affinity with her sister. She recognises that even if you want an alternative way of life, children always create a need for a strong family network and support around you. In the early 20th Century women’s lives are changing, but not that much. Eliza’s daughter, Nancy, realises that even though she is more accepted as a strong independent woman she is still hampered by her class and bohemian background. Despite feeling free to pursue her love for a married man, she finds that this freedom is not all she imagined it would be and yearns for more. If you want page turning story-telling with a supernatural and magical twist then these are the books for you.
This month I took some time off from blog tours and other commitments to spend a couple of weeks reading my own choices. Not only did this give me a lot of freedom, it allowed me to read one of my all time favourite authors followed by one of my most recent loves; Alice Hoffman and Alix E. Harrow. Even more of a coincidence is that both have written books based within the folklore of witches, healers, and wise women. In Hoffman’s case this is her third novel in the Practical Magic series, which delves back further than ever before to the origins of the Owens family and the formation of communities whose religion will not suffer a witch to live. Harrow also creates a world of sisters, three separated sisters who come together at the very beginning of the 20th Century and the suffragette movement.
In Magic Lessons, Maria is found as a baby by wise woman Hannah Owens, who brings her up with the old ways. Maria learns how to grow a healing garden, to use herbs for ailments of body and mind, and help women with problems caused by love. However, Maria’s power isn’t just learned. She has the mark of a blood witch from her birth mother, and has been chosen by her familiar Cadin who is a crow. Maria feels she must be the result of a woman being fooled by love and vows not to be taken in by a man. Tragically, Hannah is burned as a witch and Maria knows she must run to save her life. She meets her mother and birth father, and realising there is no room in their love for a third person she takes a gift of red boots and sails to the island of Curacao where she has been sold into servitude for a period of five years. Here, her vow against love will be tested. Taking us through the dangerous years of the 17th Century, where Puritanical communities like Salem in Massachusetts were whipped to hysteria, and would not suffer a witch to live. Hoffman’s prequel to Practical Magic takes us back to the beginnings of the Owens family and the complicated relationship between their power and the very human need to be loved.
I had been waiting for this prequel for a long time and I wasn’t disappointed. It only took me moments to be in Hoffman’s magical world thanks to the layers of description she uses to create an unusual atmosphere. In some senses she creates an instantly recognisable sense of place. Her descriptions of Massachusetts, and later, Brooklyn are full of local floral and fauna, the sense of wilderness and pioneering spirit within these early settlers of the Americas. It is dark, foggy, wet and often icily cold with dangerous animals and even more dangerous people. By contrast the time spent travelling to the West Indies and the beautiful island of Curacao are vivid. In the daytime full of colour, exotic flowers and birds and I could feel the sun on my face, the warm sand beneath my feet and the incredible animals such as the turtles and tiny hummingbirds. By night, when Maria and her friend explore the island, it is still warm, with a vast sky full of stars. On the other hand there are times when these places seem otherworldly as we see them through the eyes of a witch: the magical properties of plants, the incredible loyalty of an wild animal like Keeper the wolf, and the witches’ power to control these elements to their advantage. It’s our world but not quite. The difference is viewing it through the lens of history, but most unimportantly, by magic.
There were times I didn’t fully understand Maria, although she’s the more sympathetic character of the three generations. She protects herself against love after seeing what it did to her mother, but then later says she couldn’t protect herself against love. I think this is almost a push and pull between the human and more magical signs of her character. She tries to use her power to prevent love, but perhaps her heart truly longs for it. The tragedy is in protecting herself against the right man, while letting the wrong one in. I find her choice to go to Massachusetts with her daughter Faith inexplicable given that she has friends and support in Curacao. John Hathorne is a very dangerous man, to women in general and not just the witches he persecutes. He drags young girls into a battle he is constantly fighting between his appetites and his conscience. There is part of him that emerged in Curacao that wants to shed his responsibilities, to throw off inhibition and dive into the sea as well as give in to his passions for a woman he desires. In Massachusetts he is a pillar of the Puritan community, yet he marries his wife Ruth when she is just 14 and his ward. She describes crying as he takes her to the marital bed, but her fear and young age does not stop him. It’s worth mentioning that in a historical context this isn’t unusual, but to me it shows a lack of compassion and respect for women. He turns his back on his daughter, both when she’s a baby and when she returns as a young woman. Maria, his wife Ruth and his daughter Faith are all his victims. Samuel, or Gogo as Faith calls him, is a good man and I was desperate for him to win Maria over. He is not scared of Maria or her power. He loves her intelligence, her fortitude and her power. I could have cried for how much time is wasted as Maria fights him.
I enjoyed the way Hoffman weaves in the historical context for America in this period. These are early settlements, some first colonised by the Dutch then by the English. She doesn’t forget the indigenous tribes either, often completely massacred by these ‘Christian communities’ who hold themselves in such high regard. They hold women with healing knowledge in the same regard as these natives of USA, as if they are cleansing their area of magical and primitive beliefs. Hoffman doesn’t forget her Jewish heritage either, situating them as a persecuted race often moved on from areas they’ve settled and treated with suspicion. We see this in the characters of Samuel and his father, who have chosen a life on the sea instead, but still hold their heritage close to their hearts. There’s a sense in which Christianity is anti-magic whereas Judaism is closer to ancient magic and respectful of its power, especially in its capacity to do good. The only time Samuel stops Maria from practicing her magic is when it’s in a darker form, as she tries everything to keep his father alive. The Christian beliefs practised by the Dutch and English settlers has become corrupted and Hoffman presents their acts as the very evil they fear. When Maria is taken for the trial by drowning in Massachusetts, there is a frenzy and mob like mentality that is seen later in real life witch trials of Salem and the fictional arrest and trial endured by Faith. When Faith is taken by a Christian woman, confined and forced to live as her daughter we again see obsession and evil. Her captor never seems to doubt she is doing God’s work removing Faith from her mother, taking her far away and putting her in irons to remove her power. Yet this evil, begets more evil as Faith escapes and uses her freedom to practice blood magic steeped in anger and revenge. Yet she still has a conscience. Faith is haunted by the death of her captor, despite helping women to wreak revenge and enchantment by night.
I would have liked to see a more time between John Hathorne’s wife Ruth and Maria, because they were both exploited by the same man. I also think that there was perhaps too much complex detail in the women’s appearances such as Faith’s changing hair colour or the different colours of thread used for different purposes. I found myself becoming confused at times, but it’s a small issue in a magical story. I think this was a thoughtful and atmospheric origins story of a family many fans have come to love. I think the strength of this series is in that combination of the mystical and the very human elements of the story. Despite their powers Maria, her mother Rebecca and her daughter Faith experience the highs and lows of every woman’s life – the changes of adolescence, falling in love with the wrong man and the right one, motherhood, illness and ageing. I felt emotional as Maria saw her ‘mother figure’ Hannah murdered by men who feared her, as she realised the man she loved didn’t really exist, and as she lost Cadin her loyal companion. These women’s fight to be accepted and even acknowledged for their skills is a fight that continues today as we fight for women’s rights to equal pay, to save reproductive rights and to be seen as more than sexual objects. Their fight to stay alive is still echoed in our fight to stop child brides, exploitation of young girls and domestic abuse. It was a series coming full circle, as we see the formation of that mistrust of love that shapes Jet’s journey or that sees Gillian constantly pick the wrong man. I truly loved my time back with the Owens women again.
Meet The Author
Alice Hoffman is the author of thirty works of fiction, including Practical Magic, The Red Garden, The Dovekeepers and, most recently,The Museum of Extraordinary Things. She lives in Boston. This book is the prequel to Practical Magic and The Rules of Magic.