Conductors by Nicole Glover

The Conductors by Nicole Glover. Boston : A John Joseph Adams Book, Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021.

Conductors by Nicole Glover

Imagine a world where Conductors on the Underground Railroad had magic; a sorcery drawn from the strength of their guiding stars. This is the premise behind The Conductors by Nicole Glover, the first book in the new Magic & Murder series. The book takes place in Post-Civil War Pennsylvania where Hetty and Benjy Rhodes are used to dealing with dark and dangerous matters. Both together and apart, they answer pleas and solve mysteries that the law leaves unresolved.

This problem-solving goes back to Hetty and Benjy’s days working on the Underground Railroad, helping slaves from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia escape to new lives in the north. The book flashes back to these shadowy adventures as it tells the stories of Benjy and Hetty’s teamwork, the pasts of their friends in Pennsylvania, and how the pair of magicians have the skills to solve a stream of serial murders.

While this book has magic, it reads more like historical fiction than historical fantasy. Each chapter in Hetty and Benjy’s past is labeled with the exact county in which it took place. Even in Pennsylvania, Hetty and Benjy’s lives are grounded in realistic details and relationships. Benjy works as a blacksmith while Hetty is a seamstress, trying to solve murders and make their rent. They rely on their friends and their friends rely on them in turn to prepare for new family members, fix water pipes, and plan funerals to make sure their lives keep going.  Hetty and Benjy’s relationship is especially beautiful to see develop as the pair start out as a marriage of convenience before blossoming into something more.

When magic does appear, author Nicole Glover makes sure that it serves a purpose. Hetty, Benjy, and most of their friends practice root magic that is connected to nature and stored in every day items from planters to embroidery. The white people around them, however, use sorcery stored in language which black people are forbidden to study. Differing ideas and ways of using these magics become a way of discussing not only race, but temperament and societal change throughout The Conductors. Watch as magic adapts to different situations (or doesn’t) depending on how it is used.

Taking place in Reconstruction Era America, The Conductors does not shy away from hard topics. The story portrays the full violence of slavery.  It looks at what it means to “pass” through the story of a former slave successfully living as a rich white woman in Pennsylvania, but only able to look into the disappearance of her obviously black sister through roundabout ways in fear of being discovered. It follows Hetty’s grief as she tries again and again to find her sister who she had lived alongside as a slave, but was unable to free.

This history and magic wrapped up in the lovable, ever-connected characters of Hetty and Benjy create a rich background that continues to up the stakes of the novel’s murder mystery, a mystery which you will not solve until the very end of the book.  The Conductors has plenty of plot twists and turns to keep you guessing (and fearing for your favorite characters’ lives) until the murderer is revealed.

I cannot wait to see what happens next in Hetty and Benjy’s adventures in their second book, The Undertakers, which is already released and owned by Alamance County Libraries.

Rebecca Zimmerman is a Children’s Librarian Assistant at Graham Public Library. You can reach her at rzimmerman@alamancelibraries.org.