The oppressively hot days of summer are here. It is a perfect time to crank up the AC, and read through all of the books I’ve acquired over the past few months. The sluggish heat and the sultry evenings are a perfect companion to Alaya Dawn Johnson’s new novel Trouble The Saints. Set in a vaguely alternate history NYC on the brink of World War 2. The novel follows three characters who are entangled with a dangerous mob boss.
In this world, people of color are sometimes gifted (or cursed) with the saint’s hands. The hands give them mysterious powers. An uncanny ability to throw knives and assassinate. The ability to sense threats, or to take away pain. Someone has been hunting the hands however, murdering people of color in an attempt to claim these mysterious powers for their own. The story that unfolds is an unexpected meditation on magic, morality, and what people must do to survive. It is a fascinating character study, not only of the protagonists but also of a time and place that feels highly relevant. Trouble The Saints is a haunting tale of love, loss, and what it means to move through the world as a person of color.
Image via Tor
Trouble The Saints Follows Three Complicated Protagonists
The book is divided into three sections, each following the point of view of one of the main characters. This format leads to some uneven pacing over the course of the book. But each character and point of view is integral to the overall weave of the narrative. Within each section there is a definitive climax, that made me feel like the book was about to end multiple times only to discover that there were still hundreds of pages left.
However what this format does do is build up each character to a breaking point. Like waves cresting in the ocean. The waves of emotion and tension build to break against the steady shore of the reader’s expectations, before slowly receding and allowing you a space to breathe. Then the wave returns stronger than before, to break once more and in the end it washes everything away.
The Saint’s Hands Bring Death
We begin with Phyllis, or ‘Pea’ as her friends call her. She is the primary protagonist of Trouble The Saints. A light-skinned black woman from Harlem, she can pass well enough for most people to accept her into white inner circles. Phyliss works as an assassin for Victor, a Russian mob boss. Victor also runs a nightclub where her best friend Tamara works as a dancer, and her former lover Dev is a bartender. Tamara and Dev are the two other point of view characters in the book. Each of them contain their own mysteries that are revealed as the story unfolds.
Pea’s saint’s hands give her uncanny agility and a knack for throwing knives (and other objects) perfectly. This power has made her the ideal assassin, and she believes that she has been killing for a good cause. Dubbed ‘Victor’s Angel’ she is convinced that she took down the man that had been killing people to steal their saint’s hands. Until a new murder happens, and everything she believes is upended.
The twists in the first part of the book are a bit predictable, but that does not lessen their impact on the story. The noir nature of the murder mystery is highly effective, but I do think that there could have been a bit more time building it up. However, once Phyllis learns the truth, she is like an arrow shot from a bow. She sets her mind on vengeance, on justice, and will see it done no matter the cost.
Photo by Ian Kiragu via Unsplash
An Angel In Disguise
The character of Phyliss is an intriguing one to start the novel with. She is not an innocent by any stretch of the imagination, but there is something innocent about her all the same. She believes that she has been doing good, but she has been blinded to the reality of her circumstances. Her desires are relatively simple, she wants to stop killing but her saint’s hands will not let her rest. She longs to reunite with her former lover Dev, but she fears that her brutality has chased him away for good. Phyliss wants to be valued, respected, and remembered. She struggles with the morality of what she has done, and how to move forward past all of the death she has brought.
The first part of the book from Phyliss’s point of view is a part fast paced action story, and part murder-mystery noir. Johnson excels at her descriptive language that brings this era of New York City to life. The gritty violence and murder contrasts with the sumptuous world of the Pelican – the nightclub that is Victor’s base of operations. The world of the Pelican is dazzling, but some of those bright jewels are beads of blood waiting to spill.
Venturing Outside of NYC Brings The World To Life
The second section of the book brings Dev’s point of view, and details his journey into the heart of the mob. It is here where the love story of Trouble The Saints really starts to shine. Dev and Phyliss have a very complicated relationship, but the love between them is powerful. There is death and danger haunting their every move. But there is a sweetness to their love that outshines all of the darkness surrounding them. These characters have done unthinkable things to protect one another. Their relationship feels real, and their love is not idealized. They get angry with one another, they keep secrets, hold onto bitterness. But that doesn’t make their love any less true, only more realistic.
Each section also gives us a new setting, although the glimmer of New York City is never far from our characters. The second section takes the characters to a quiet cottage outside of the city. They attempt to live some semblance of a normal life. But their past is never far from them. Nor is the everyday dangers of racism and prejudice. On top of that, there is the saint’s hands that seem to bring trouble no matter where they go. This part of the story does eloquent work in bringing in new characters who also have the hands. It deftly demonstrates that no matter what gifts people of color have, they are always subject to prejudice and fear.
Each Section Adds Layers To The Characters
Although the second part of the book does an excellent job at building the world that these characters inhabit, the plot does get a bit muddled here. Dev and Phyllis are pulled into intrigue that is not of their own making. But it says something about their characters that they choose to help. These characters cannot turn a blind eye to the pain of people in their community. They are also struggling to redeem themselves for what they have done in the past.
They try to use their saint’s hands to do good, but they find that their own powers can turn on them at a moment’s notice. And that there is a limit to their power. The plot is less important here than the character building. Although there is a fair amount of tension and intrigue in this section, it is the moment when the waves recede only to build up higher than before and come crashing down.
Photo by I.Am Nah via Unsplash
The Oracle and the Assassin
The third section of the book is the slowest, after two climaxes in each of the previous sections it almost feels like an extended epilogue. However it was also one of my favorite parts of the book. This section brings the character of Tamara into the foreground. It also focuses on the close relationship between Phyllis and Tamara. Despite not having the saint’s hands, Tammy has unique abilities of her own. She can see the dead, and read fate in her deck of cards. Unlike the other characters, Tamara has never killed anyone and she believes herself to be good and innocent. But she is still haunted by mistakes that she has made, and pain that she brought upon others.
Tarot Cards | Photo by Content Pixie via Unsplash
Much of the conflict throughout Trouble The Saints is internal, before manifesting externally in a dramatic death. This is most prevalent in the final section of the book, where Tamara can clearly see the paths laid out before her and Phyllis. She struggles with a decision that will drastically affect both of them. And in the end, things unfold in a manner both unexpected and also all too familiar. Tragedy follows the characters wherever they go. They cannot outrun their fate, no matter how much they try to change their circumstances.
Trouble The Saints Will Linger With You Long After It Is Over
At first, I was unsure how to feel about Trouble The Saints after I finished reading. The story has lingered with me for days, haunting me the way that the characters were themselves haunted by so much. The world-building is excellent, bringing this mobster era of New York City vividly to life. The writing is beautiful, lyrical and evocative. The characters are complex anti-heroes with blood on their hands and shadows in their hearts. It is truly a character-driven novel, with the plot often being secondary to the character development.
Initially I felt like I wanted Johnson to delve more into the idea of the saint’s hands. I wanted these characters to be able to control their abilities and utilize them to wage epic battles and mete out justice. (But then again, I read a lot of epic fantasy or comic book stories where this type of thing would happen.) I realize now that the saint’s hands work as a powerful metaphor. No matter what gifts these characters possess, that does not protect them from the abuse of the white world around them. That power, these gifts, are threatening to the white majority and draw even more abuse and prejudice down upon them.
In the end, Trouble The Saints is a compelling character-driven story about power and powerlessness. It is a story about the lengths we go to to protect the ones we love. And it is timely reminder about the struggles facing a person of color in the world, at any point in history. It will haunt you long after the characters are gone.
Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.