Not For Me: Alaya Dawn Johnson – Trouble the Saints

It pains me to say that I just didn’t like this book very much. Alaya Dawn Johnson has written one of my favorite YA novels that is criminally underrated – The Summer Prince – but what she was trying to do in this World Fantasy Award winning new novel just didn’t work for me.

TROUBLE THE SAINTS
by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Published: Tor, 2020
eBook:
320 pages
Audiobook:
13 hours 4 minutes
Standalone
My rating:
5/10

Opening line: Seven. That’s what we’re starting with.

The dangerous magic of The Night Circus meets the powerful historical exploration of The Underground Railroad in this timely and unsettling novel, set against the darkly glamorous backdrop of New York City at the dawn of WWII.

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.

This is going to be a rather short review because I have very little to say about this book. First off, though, it’s not bad. This is most definitely one of those cases where a novel is just not for me and I knew that the entire time I listened to the audiobook. It’s split into three parts, each focusing on a different protagonist.

First off, we meet Phyllis, who works for a crime boss and has killed quite a few people in her time. We learn a little bit about her roots in Harlem, how her “new” life in Manhattan creates tension in her family (don’t forget where you came from) and why she is so gifted with the knives she uses to kill. Because she, like some other non-white people, has Saints’ hands. They are considered a gift and bestow a type of superpower on whoever has them, Phyllis also passes for white which creates interesting situations but, unfortunately, wasn’t focused on enough for me. The same goes for the Hands. The author kept everything super vague and I’m sure that was on purpose but to me, it all felt too intangible, too handwavey to truly immerse myself in this world and its magic.

The second protagonist is Dev, an undercover cop working for the same crime syndicate as Phyllis. He’s also her ex-lover and apparently they are still in love but both pretend not to be because reasons… Again, the way this idea was handled just wasn’t for me. Because the “secret” of Dev being an undercover cop isn’t used to create tension at all. The former relationship between Dev and Phyillis, as so many other things in this book, are simply stated as a fact, without much emotion. I suppose this gives the book a more noir-ish feel but it fell flat for me and kept me from ever connecting with the characters. Which is a shame when they are in danger or get hurt because all I did in those cases was shrug and move on.

Lastly, we follow Tamara, who is gifted with seeing the future or laying Tarot cards or something of the sort. This, too, is kept vague. I couldn’t tell you why but I did like Tamara.

As for plot, I honestly couldn’t tell you what exactly happens in this book. I remember some plot beats but not quite how they are connected, how we got from point A to B to C, or what the point of it all is. And I only read this book a few weeks ago! I debated whether I should even write something about it because there’s so little that stuck in my mind. But I also think that just because this wasn’t for me doesn’t mean it’s not the perfect book for someone else. It did win a World Fantasy Award and I don’t believe that was undeserved.

The writing was good and Johnson did create atmosphere – although the audiobook narration might have helped with that. The fact that said atmosphere didn’t reach me is not the author’s fault. So maybe this book wasn’t for me but if you’re okay with a slow-moving plot and a story that leaves things unexplained oftentimes, then go for it. Johnson has a lot to say about race and guilt and whether some people are more deserving of magic than others. It didn’t reach me but it may just be someone else’s new favorite book.

MY RATING: 5/10 – Meh

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