Cover Image: Trouble the Saints

Trouble the Saints

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Member Reviews

This is such a unique story and I really loved and appreciated the historical research and discussions of race as they tied into magic and fantasy. That said, I don’t think this is the book for me, as I’ve realized I’m not a big fan of noir. This feels like a case of “it’s not you it’s me” and I really recommend this to people who are looking for dark crime stories that explore racism and magical elements. Unfortunately I wasn’t a huge fan of any of the romance, but I really enjoyed each character individually and found the overall experience entertaining. Definitely pick this one up if you love noir!!
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I don't know about this one. I really wanted to love it, but I just couldn't get into the story. I couldn't understand all the fuss about the hands, and what they did, until nearly the end of the part told from Phyllis's perspective. It didn't help that the story happens in a pre-WWII era, which I don't really like to read about. I somewhat enjoyed what I've read (when I wasn't confused), even if I didn't want to read more.

I recommend this for anyone who likes stories about Russian mob, corrupt cops, black people in the pre-WWII era.

Many thanks to Tor Books for the complimentary e-copy of this book through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.
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Trouble the Saints is a troubling story of turbulent times in the Big Apple, in the midst of WWII. While the story has some elements of the supernatural or fantastical provenance, by and large the story deals with a handful of characters who happen to be on the wrong side of the law, albeit for different reasons for each of them. Over the course of a few years, from different first-person perspectives, the story is told in a staccato narrative fashion, almost linear but not quite, and not always.

The biggest gripe I had with the story was that it is so chock full of noire that each character speaks as if they are the true Marlowe. I mean, one or two characters speaking like that would have been fine, and even then talking like that can't always translate to even thinking like that. I had to remind myself that the first two (out of the three) sections of the book are told in first person, and even their thoughts are full of quips and oblique references and halfway poetic renditions of whatever it is they are thinking of, or are bothered by, at that moment. After a while, it gets quite bothersome to read every other line as a challenge to the poor reader's ability to follow.

The book almost ended up in my DNF pile, but the only thing that kept me going is the characters themselves. The characterization is deep, personal, and while they often think too obtusely for my reading comfort, I called that literary license and carried on. The complexity of all the central characters is quite rich and consistent. Over the course of the story, you can almost begin to imagine how they look, how they (would) look at you, how they'd walk & talk, and who they really are when they are alone.

I must point out that there are some chapters that are clearly written out of timeline, but I at least could not identify anything obvious to label them so. It took reading and re-reading, and then some (!), to assure myself that I was not going soft in the head, and that this chapter was indeed from a different timeline. Then I noticed - most of the first-person section chapters are in present tense, while these out-of-timeline chapters are from the past and are written in the past tense. Not much to go by there, but still something.

All in all, it is difficult read, and not just but by the thematic and social elements, but the writing style itself is very dense, and in an effort to hook the reader, it invariably ends up confusing many, especially - as I mentioned earlier - the overly Philip-Marlowe-y style of narration.
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Trouble the Saints is an adult historical urban fantasy novel, and it speculates about what life would be like for people of color in the 40s if they were gifted with saintly powers located in their hands. It jumps between the POVs of 3 main characters involved, in one way or another, with New York’s criminal underworld: a Black woman who is struggling to put her past as an assassin behind her, her former lover, and their close friend. 

While the novel wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, I enjoyed it a lot! The switch between POVs, and even between first & third person or past & present tense, were confusing to keep up with at first. I really found myself having to focus intently to stay aware of what was going on. 

But once I was able to fully grasp the story, I found it to be an amazing and captivating one. The characters are deeply flawed and human, and there is also some beautiful and clever prose throughout this book. Most importantly, I love the way that the “hands,” those subtle abilities granted to people of color, were woven into the story. Instead of serving as just a magical element, they become a powerful avenue of commentary about the discrimination that people of color face daily. 

I rated this 4 stars. It is a bit of a difficult story to get into, but I think it’s an underrated gem!
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This is a complicated book to review. The things that it does well are great and the concept is very original. I am definitely interested in reading on in the series. I loved the premise of this historical book a little more than the actual execution. The fist half of the story was very slow and not particularly suspenseful. That said, once things picked up I was really into the way the author wrote the mystery and scenes of danger and tension. The plot and narrative was just unfortunately very weak. However, I did like the character at the center of the story. 
Full review to come on my YouTube channel.
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I received a free digital copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

This book was really intense. A book that everyone should read. A powerful story, with great characters and a beautiful writing style.

I Highly recommend it.
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I do not understand why this book is still listed for me I send my feedback three years ago. Sending this to remove,
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A rich complex tapestry of a story. A woman born with an assassins hands and ability. Offered entrance into the world of white inclusion. Torn in the end because of the choices she made when she had time and youth to spare. Phyllis lives in a time threatened by WWII although the US was slow to involve there was enough intrigue underground in the growing mobster influences Manhattan. Light skinned she often ‘passed’ in the world of whites. A fact that often left her questioning her place. While enjoying the benefit of moving between two world. The laws of attraction I think work against Pea as she likes to be called. The sense of conflict here is identity and how one see’s yourself after a life of choices and growing regret.
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I was originally drawn to Trouble the Saints because the premise of assassins in historical New York sounded too good to pass up. And, although I struggled with this book at times, I’m glad I picked it up.

The first half of Trouble the Saints was incredibly difficult to get through. You’re thrown into this world and expected to pick up the story with little context. The timeline also jumps around a bit so I found it very difficult to place when each portion of the story was occurring originally. I do wish that Johnson had helped the reader find their footing a bit more during Phyllis’s story because I think I would have enjoyed the novel significantly more if I felt like I even partially understood what was going on. 

Luckily, Trouble the Saints is actually the story of three different characters. And once we got to Dev’s story, I was able to start filling in the gaps and answering the many questions I had from Phyllis’s story. After that, I was able to truly settle into this book and enjoy this story filled with morally grey characters who challenged each other and who tried to find safety and a home in a world that continually kept trying to reject them. Some of Johnson’s prose is beautiful and, over time, her characters are revealed to be beautifully complex. Tamara’s portion of the story was my favorite and I loved seeing how everything came together in the end. Plus, I ended up loving how Johnson explored the magic and history behind the powers granted by each character’s “hands”.

Overall, I wish the introduction to Trouble the Saints had been a bit more accessible because then I would feel comfortable recommending this one widely. However, I would recommend this one if you’re up for a challenge and are looking for a book that beautifully blends historical fiction and fantasy, with the incredible backdrop of the dark underworld of Manhattan.
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Thank you to NetGalley, Macmillan Publishers, and Tor Books for the eARC in exchange for an honest review of <i>Trouble the Saints</i> by Alaya Dawn Johnson. I was very into the idea of a noir book surrounding 1930s New York City with juju magic, and assassins. I am obsessed with the noir and crime genres and it’s a time period of glittering magic in lower Manhattan versus the grit of Harlem at the time. This had all the makings of an interesting book and it’s very easy to pick up and read this. I found it difficult to put down and if people are interested in the stories of Black and other POC at this time then they will find this an interesting book.

I love the classic noir element of this. The story is in three parts told from the perspectives of Phyllis (aka Pea), Dev, and Tamara. The book is largely about Pea and it goes into how each character holds the important people in their lives with who they love. Pea is an assassin and she wants out. The hook made me believe that the story would be a little juicier than it was in the long run.

My main issue with this book is that the writing is a bit too detached that it comes off hazy and the plot becomes ambiguous. I went into this book expecting something completely different than what I got. The main feeling that I was left with was wanting more of everything. I wanted more magic, more blood, and more drama. I feel like you have no choice but to go all in with this many plot elements. It was more of a reflection on life for BIPOC at this time which is great but if you’re giving me a book about magic and assassins then I would have liked for it to have a bit more zest.

For me the most interesting part was the first part told by Pea. Dev’s section was a bit of a slog and Tamara was interesting too but after reading Dev’s section I found myself mentally drained. For those who know exactly what they’re getting then I think they’ll enjoy this book but if you’re like me, expecting something a bit more genre specific then it will be a bit unexpected.

I look forward to reading more from this author though.
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An intense, poetic, emotional, powerful, memorable novel. Not an easy read, but it's not an easy subject matter and the author confronts the history of racism and how it affects her characters' lives.
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Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson is a well-written, deeply atmospheric magical realist Black historical literary fiction.  The characters are rich and resonant. The setting is sharply delineated. The mood is dark and weary and magical and noir-like.  And it was just not what I was looking for. I requested an advanced copy of Trouble the Saints based on the my previous experience with the author's earlier fantasy works, which were less literary and more solidly entertaining genre fiction. I do think this would be richly enjoyable for the right audience, but I wasn't the right audience, and haven't been able to finish my advanced copy. Recommended for readers who enjoy books like TaNehesi Coates' The Water Dancer or Colson Whitehead's Underground Railroad. Thank you to #NetGalley and Tor Books for sharing an #advancedcopy of #TroubleTheSaints with me in exchange for an honest review.
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This book is split into three parts with three different POV characters. How much I liked the characters was how much I liked their stories, and I liked the characters in varying degrees. That made it hard to rate this book. I liked Phyllis's part ( the first part) the best, and I'd rate that four stars easily. I really disliked Dev, the second POV, and I had mixed feelings about Tamara's part of the book.

All three of these characters work for a Russian named Victor in a seedy 1930's era New York bar that's a front for other criminal activities. Tamara's a dancer whose act calls for a snake. Dev is a bartender and is a past lover of Phyllis and a current lover of Tamara. Phyllis- well, she's an assassin. In this world, some people of color have been given "the hands", or a supernatural ability. Phyllis can throw anything and hit exactly where she means to, balance the point of a knife on her finger, juggle, etc. Her knives have ended the lives of quite a few of Victor's rivals, but she tells herself that she gets to choose her victims and all of them have deserved death from what she knows. Dev's hands can sense danger to himself or others. Tamara doesn't exactly have the hands, but she does have an oracular ability with her playing cards.

The plot of this book isn't the point. It's really about the moral dilemmas and growth that each character must endure. Phyllis must work through disillusionment and decide if she wants to continue to use her hands for death. Dev (who I found insufferably sanctimonious) has to decide if his morals allow him to be with Phyllis. Tamara must decide if she wants to save a friend's soul by taking a sin upon herself. While I didn't always like Tamara, I also understand that I haven't been in the danger that she has been and my sense of self-preservation in reading about her wasn't activated in the way hers was by actually being in the situation.

The hands have been given to people of color by their ancestors. The spirits of slaves who witnessed their descendants being freed gifted these descendants with the power to hold onto their freedom. These spirits have opinions on how these powers should be used and can take the magic back. Phyllis was meant to be a protector, not an assassin. But it's hard to resist using power for yourself when your other choice means poverty and an early death. The responsibility that comes with power is really the central theme of the book. Racism is of course another issue that's examined closely. Phyllis is able to pass (or so she thinks) but the rest of her family cannot, and so she has opportunities open to her that they do not.
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This book just was not for me. I wanted to like it, but I could not get into the writing and ultimately got halfway through it before I found myself wanting to read something else. I ended up not finishing this one. However, I can see how people would enjoy this one. It just was not the story for me.
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I got halfway through this one before I had to give up. I was really enjoying it, but I was getting so bored as well. I felt that were was either too much going on or nothing at all. It was a really interesting concept.  And there was a lot of things that I was liking about it. But It just felt a little too slow for me. I might come back to it.
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The core of the magic in this edgy, often disturbing fantasy is that the anguish of slaves was so deep, so powerful, that it created a spell persisting to the modern age. This takes the form of bespelled hands – hands that can detect a person’s darkest secrets, hands that can tell the future – and hands that crave justice. In 1940s New York, the descendents of those slaves, men and women gifted with magical hands, often end up on the wrong side of the law. Phyllis, the first of these characters, is an enforcer for a white mobster, his “avenging angel.” Her best friend, Tamara, dances with a snake and tells fortunes at the mobster’s night club. And Dev, who loves them both, is a bartender by night and police informant by day. But someone has been targeting Blacks and harvesting their hands…

Trouble the Saints is a difficult book to describe. It’s not an easy or comfortable read, but it is an important book, fearlessly delving into issues of racism, injustice, murder, greed, and forgiveness.
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Sadly this one was just not my favorite. I can see other readers enjoying it and in fact can think of a friend or two I would recommend it to, but it was a DNF for me. I’m still very grateful to have received an eARC in exchange for my honest opinion.
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This book was good I give it a 3.5/5 stars. I think my main problem was that it took me a while to figure out how the fantasy part worked. Phyllis and her hands especially. The switching of POVs also left me a bit confused because I wasn't expecting it and I felt like we could have heard more from each of them. I think the aspect that felt more memorable was the way the struggles of each POC were written and integrated into the story. It was very insightful for the reader because not everyone is aware of these struggles.
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Written in three parts from three different POVs, Trouble the Saints is both a commentary on racism and societal rank; as well as a fantasy story that questions the ideas of fate, religion, and free will. Comparing it to The Night Circus really rubs me the wrong way as Night Circus is one of my favourite books ever. While Trouble the Saints was okay, it was no five star read. 

Flow & Cohesiveness
The flow just isn't smooth, I believe I would have liked this better if Alaya Dawn Johnson flipped between our three character POVs. Even if that meant the story had to alternate timelines and wasn't presented as the segregated mess it becomes. I'm glad I didn't give up on this one as the last POV was my favourite. 
Trouble the Saints lacks a cohesiveness between the three parts and the main plot. I struggled to feel like I was even reading the same book at times. We go from beautiful descriptions in part one to frame jobs that could belong on Sons of Anarchy in part two to a commentary on racism in part three. For this reason I think it would have been better to tell the story between all three POVs (and timelines). Hopefully then I could have pieced together important events or tidbits that I was supposed to with the parts separated. 

What am I Missing?
I really want to read the books that come before this one... there isn't any; but it felt like there should have been. A lot of content is told to us by our characters. The main plot stems from events that happened years before. Unlike Game of Thrones or another 'typical' fantasy series where there is a large backstory and history, but the current story is just as good, Trouble the Saints lacks something in it's current setting. I kept thinking I wish I was reading the story about XYZ event that was being explained or described from the past. While any good (complex) fantasy novel will have a solid backstory I think authors need to be careful that the backstory isn't better or more interesting than the one they are currently telling. 

Morals
All that said there is one thing that is excellent in this book. Johnson explains, portrays, and discusses sexism, prejudice, racism, etc. as though she is a woman twice her age. The insight and eloquence with which Johnson lays out these social issues is brilliant. With quotes that challenge the reader to really think, like: 
<i>"Does just avoiding bad things make you a good person? Don’t you have to do good things for that?"</i>
We are given a platform in which to really ask ourselves tough questions. The discussion and bantering of our characters in part three lends itself to a really interesting book club (or English class) conversation. I definitely want to read more of Johnson's opinions and takes on social issues (be it in non-fiction or fiction) in the future. And lending her some street cred (if you will) she is not a snowflake and can pull from her own genuine experiences; something many authors (including my white self) cannot do. 

Overall
Johnson is certainly a writer to watch for in the future. While Trouble the Saints isn't without it's pitfalls and issues; there is a lot of promise here that can be seen under the surface. This is her first book with a significant publisher (TOR) and I can absolutely see their amazing editorial team only improving on the talent that is clearly there. I will definitely read future Johnson in the hopes that some of the more amateur issues here are improved on. 
Lastly, it was a huge mistake to promote this book as The Night Circus in my opinion. I might have enjoyed it a lot more if I wasn't expecting something different than what was delivered. A good reminder that blurbs matter. Unfortunately they are rarely written by the author, and yet blurbs are the first entrance (besides the cover) that we have to get a sense of what the book is all about. I really love TOR books 90% of the time. They do have the occasional miss from an author but they are rarely wrong about the author having potential or promise. Let's hope TOR invests in Johnson and we see more from her in the future.  

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.
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This is a muddled story that I wanted to love, but simply couldn't get into. A black assassin from Harlem is a fantastic protagonist, but the story itself was confusing and underwhelming.
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