Trouble the Saints
Set in New York, at the dawn of WWII, Trouble the Saints is a story that starts with a notorious assassin whose ‘hands’ gift her deadly precision with knives. While trying hard to leave this life ...
Set in New York, at the dawn of WWII, Trouble the Saints is a story that starts with a notorious assassin whose ‘hands’ gift her deadly precision with knives. While trying hard to leave this life behind, we learn more about the race and power dynamics of the 1930s with a magical – somewhat mystical – throughline that ties together the struggle to survive and the need for justice. Trouble the Saints is an ambitious novel. It is a wonderfully rich blend of a vividly dangerous world, laced with magic in a vibrant presentation of historical reality.
It’s been a while since I’ve read such lyrical writing, especially in fantasy. Alaya Dawn Johnson has crafted a style that I can easily see being confusing or disorienting to others but was the perfect balance of storytelling. A sort of seductive, intimate conversation. It makes her characters feel real and almost lovable in the ways you want to see them have some semblance of normalcy.
The book is split into three parts, Phyllis (in first-person), Dev (in first-person), and Tamara (in third-person). I should preface my discussion on the plot – or why many would argue the lack thereof – with the notion that this book is perfect for those wanting a heavily character-driven narrative laced with mysticism. I can assume it can be agreed upon that the true evil of this book is the systemic racism that plagues people of colour. Each character embodies this in varying degrees in their respective parts.
For Phyllis, being mixed-race and white-passing, she uses this ambiguity to find her place among lethal mobsters. Phyllis’ moral dilemma is her need to use her hands for justice. Through this work, she wants to use her hands to kill only those deserving of it. What we see – through all parts – is her coming to terms with being used a weapon for her crew. Through asides told by the “hands”, we see the times she didn’t use them when it mattered; when fellow Black people were being mistreated, killed and manipulated. Her hands even begin turning against her, behaving sporadically outside of her control.
Most of these revelations come to her when she reunites with her lover Dev Patil. He tries to stop her from killing but we gradually see that there is a part of him drawn to the danger. Dev and Phyllis move back to his hometown after he kills their mob boss Victor and that is where we learn about a young black boy with a dangerous gift and a possible threat on his life. We see more of his gift – detecting threats – that makes him more entangled in the new tensions of the town. Dev’s part, sometimes too slow to hold my attention, proves to be my favourite subplot of the book. Through various interactions between Dev and the folks in the town, we see him coming face to face with horrors that the boy’s mother experiences and how repressed rage, though subdued through societal structures of oppression will always reach a boiling point. It won’t always manifest as water bubbling over the edge but rather as oil splattering on a gas stove, stoking a fire that will keep building, inescapable with measures other than reparations and justice.
Finally, seemingly a side character growing in appearance and importance, we have Tamara. Tamara, with no gifted hands of her own, is an oracle. Though I can’t guarantee the choice of perspectives on behalf of the author, it was interesting to see her part being the only one written from the third person. As we see her love and distaste for what Phyllis and Dev have it feels like a representation of her feelings of being an outsider. She takes care of a pregnant Phyllis after Dev, and her lover, are drafted for war. Phyllis’ unborn child has powers of its own and could be disastrous when born. Tamara’s cards warn her of the impending peril and how she can save her friend and baby. Instead, she reflects mostly on her need for an extraordinary life, getting to do what she pleases as a black woman. Her need for theatre, glamour and an escape causes her to have an internal conflict to abandon Phyllis to live her own life the way she always wanted.
The most unfortunate thing, though I can say I enjoyed it, is that Trouble the Saints feels imbalanced. Even with its strength in writing and characters, the three parts, ultimately, did not have the same effect throughout. What truly kept me hooked was the exploration of morality. Even in times like ours, where racial discrimination and oppression will feel quite relevant, it was interesting to see characters navigate what morality for them should look like. In a world that perceives them as subhuman and subjects them to inhumane treatment, they are still concerned with their virtue.
The girth of the story is one that, by the end, will feel like a load larger than the pages it was written on. There are many places to get lost and places to be abruptly pulled up to the front row of the manifestation of racist practices that feel more modern than expected. It is now a matter of the reader choosing to match pace as the author explores this with this a large cast of characters. More literary than fantasy; sadly just as present as past; and equally a feat of writing prowess as it is a race of stamina and attention, not speed.