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Trouble the Saints

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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.

352 pages, Hardcover

First published July 21, 2020

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About the author

Alaya Dawn Johnson

85 books620 followers
Alaya Johnson graduated from Columbia University in 2004 with a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. She lives in New York City.

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5 stars
286 (16%)
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501 (29%)
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616 (35%)
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248 (14%)
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74 (4%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 457 reviews
Profile Image for jenny✨.
563 reviews800 followers
November 17, 2020
When we return to the wheel of life, you and I, we will find one another again and again... until the colonized and the enslaved and the abused will rise up with the holy strength of the gods behind them and, together, we will make it right.

I feel really conflicted about Trouble the Saints. But I also think it's important to say off the bat: While it wasn't the book for me, I would absolutely still recommend this for its unique exploration into legacies of trauma in BIPOC communities, and to anyone intrigued by preternatural assassins grappling with morality and mortality.

I confess that I struggled for a significant portion of the book. We're immediately thrown to the world-building wolves, launching into convoluted gangster conspiracies without fanfare or context. Often I'd catch myself drifting because the words on the page refused to cohere into any sort of plot in my head. And I had a hard time grasping the magic behind the hands and numbers, which made it difficult to connect with the characters and their stakes.


Trouble the Saints is a triptych of stories—three sections, three intertwined narrators—set in an alternate-history New York on the cusp of WWII. It's a noir, too: gritty, dark, embedded within the city's mobster underbelly.

In this world, people of colour are occasionally bestowed strange powers called "hands," which are indeed tied to their physical hands. Some hands parse out your darkest secrets. Some are lucky with lottery numbers. Others—like those of Dev Patil—sense threats. And the hands of Phyllis Green? Hers itch to mete out murderous justice.

The book is definitely cerebral, more so than I was expecting—literary spec-fic on racial themes (very much like Stephen Graham Jones's The Only Good Indians, which I also highly recommend). And the hands themselves pose interesting questions: How are certain people blessed/cursed with these talents? From where do they arise? Why do the hands even exist?

“Your hands are like the numbers,* aren’t they, Miss Green? A little luck the Lord gives us to let us get on top, just for a bit, even though they got all the power.”

* “the numbers” refer to an ingenious and illegal lottery that originated in Black communities and helped Black folks to not only survive but also flourish in the 20th century

Perhaps the hands are a way to empower people who have so long been disempowered. Perhaps they will tip the scales in favour of those marginalized by white supremacy. As the story unfolds, we come to understand that the hands are indelibly tied to histories of violence and inherited trauma that Black and brown folks faced (and still face) in America. The hands, like this history, are a complicated entity that empower as much as burden their bearers.

To me, though, Trouble the Saints is above all a love story. Among a mostly hazy storyline, this stood out in sharp relief: the complex love that Phyllis, Dev, and Tamara hold for the people in their lives. Alaya Dawn Johnson's prose is so precise and perfect in these moments, it snatches my breath away. She writes:

Sometimes I don’t know how we will survive each other. Sometimes the greatest violence you can do to another person is to love them.

Her characters betray, protect, endear, and hurt in equal measure. They grapple with what they are willing to sacrifice in the name of love. Sometimes the price is too high—sometimes, being with someone means owning up to the ugliest truths about yourself.

There would be no more revelations. No more holding my despised pieces to the light and finding them, improbably, precious.


CONCLUSION: Even though I struggled to parse meaning from an often ambiguous plot, the meaning managed to find me anyway. That's the power of Trouble the Saints.

Thank you NetGalley and Macmillan-Tor/Forge for this e-ARC in exchange for an honest review!
Profile Image for P. Clark.
Author 45 books4,275 followers
November 27, 2021
One of the most beautifully written books I've read, with richly rendered characters and settings. I knew the story would be imaginative. But I don't think I was ready for just how emotional and heartfelt it would be. Take your time with this. Definitely worth it.
July 21, 2020
3.5 stars

Edit (7/21/20): Happy publishing day!

Welcome to assassins and morally grey characters galore!

Trouble the Saints is a story set in New York just as WWII begins to dawn on America. Phyllis, a notorious assassin, wants nothing more than to escape her killing life, but her past isn’t that set on letting her go just yet. Coupled with magic and a bit of supernatural, Trouble the Saints bases itself off a very intriguing premise.

The story is split into three parts, each focusing on a different character. At first, I was pretty averse to this format as it usually means that I won’t be able to develop any connection to each character, but Johnson’s characters are just impossible not to adore. They have lovable features, flaws, dual-sided characteristics and are just overall very complex characters. Many of them are very morally grey characters, teetering on the edge of evil, but just because they aren’t good people doesn’t mean they aren’t good characters.

Our first part focuses on Phyllis and her internal struggle that her ‘hands’ makes for her. While she has able to live a somewhat peaceful life under the protection of Manhattan’s biggest mob boss, she now wants out. The second part focuses on Dev, a friend and lover who deals with leading a two-faced life and not knowing whether his love is justified. And finally, the third part, and also my personal favourite, focuses on Tamara, a cheerful, bubbly, friend of the prior two, who’s oracle calling leads her into a mortal dilemma.

The characters are not your typical fantasy cast, but this isn’t your typical fantasy book either. Set more in realism, if you’re looking for a refreshing new take on the fantasy and historical fiction genres, Trouble the Saints is the book for you.

Now while I love the spin Johnson puts on the genres, the fantasy aspect took a while for me to figure out. The book opens up with a card reading and dream sequence sort of scene which only left me confused during the following chapters. It was only until about halfway through when I finally saw what was going on. I wish that this aspect of the book was clarified at the start, as that would’ve made the first part much easier to read.

To give y’all a bit of a head start, the main fantasy aspect in this book revolves around a sort of power referred to as the ‘hands', in which different people are blessed (or perhaps cursed) with different powers through their hands. The power is most prominent in Black families, and not so much in white. It brings very important racial themes to the book as well, and considering the time we’re living in currently, very fitting.

Not only racial themes are brought up through the fantasy of the book, but Johnson also deals with issues such as morality and choice. Again, Trouble the Saints sets itself apart from others in its genres through the themes and issues it tackles in its narrative. A fact that I think makes this an excellent and thought-provoking read. I’m a big sucker for books that make you think deeper and books with hidden messages, and this ticks all of those boxes.

Anyways, continuing on the subject of confusing writing, the first part was filled with it. Complex sentence after complex sentence, purple prose, one too many adjectives, you name it. The writing in the first part was not only hard to read but also extremely difficult to absorb. I found myself rereading almost every sentence just to get a clear picture of what she was trying to say. The author seems to almost leave all that behind as soon as the second part starts, which was a relief.

While I struggled with Johnson’s writing in the first part, I can’t deny that she is a good writer. This alternate world she has built is sparkling in all its grizzly and bloody glory. She deftly captures the vibe and aura of the 1940s and traps it in this book. Every single aspect, from the way the characters talk to the way they act, just completely immersed me into her world.

The reason I’m giving this book a 3.5 star rating is because of how I rated each part. Part one for me is 3 stars; for all that it is good, I still can’t get over how hard it was for me to get through it. Part two is 3.5 stars; an improvement from part one, but the time jumps just made the writing and pacing too inconsistent for me to enjoy. And part three is 4 stars; I loved Tamara and the complex conundrum she faces. I could honestly read a whole book about her. In fact, I don’t think I would’ve minded if this whole book was set from her point of view!

(For me, a 3.5 is a pretty good rating, so don’t let it convince you otherwise).

Between the fantasy, the complex themes, and the realism, Trouble the Saints is a fascinating read that exceeds the confines of its identifying genres. Highly recommend you give this one a shot!

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for ~ a foray in fantasy ~.
270 reviews260 followers
December 13, 2021
This book was such a pleasant surprise— I’d never heard of it and just happened to stumble upon it. I’d pitch this book as the themes of The Vanishing Half with the magic and multidimensional characters of Six of Crows.

Am I still a little confused about the magic system? Yes, definitely, but it didn’t impede the reading experience.

The themes tackled in this book: about white passing, trauma, and love were handled so well. It didn’t feel like moralizing for the sake of it.

The characters were incredibly well-developed. None of them were morally “good”, just as there was no clear evil, which always draws me in.

There wasn’t really a traditional plot in the traditional sense of the word. It meandered along, slowly revealing trauma and histories.

Probably closer to 4 stars, but I really did enjoy it.
Profile Image for Spencer Orey.
540 reviews123 followers
November 26, 2021
Cool worldbuilding and hand magic, and a really interesting and edgy anti-WW2 draft stance. I got a little bored with the emotional self-interest of all the characters and how the world was a little bit too absorbed with the super interesting horny magic assassin. The racial politics are solid and thoughtful. Sometimes I wondered if the language was a little too contemporary or old-timey, but that's me not really knowing how people spoke in New York in the 40s.
Profile Image for Sahitya.
1,031 reviews206 followers
August 18, 2020
TW: Racism, description of a lynching that happened in the past, violence and murders, many scenes with descriptions of blood

It’s probably more of 3.5 but to be honest, I’m still unsure.

This historical fantasy noir with supernatural elements is so far away from my comfort zone or anything that I ever read, that even I’m surprised to see it on my tbr. But I was very intrigued when I first saw the cover because it’s super pretty and I guess I just wanted to try something different. But now I don’t know what to say.

The prose was beautiful at places, but also harder to understand at others, overall taking a little more effort from my side to understand the meaning behind it all. We are also pretty much thrown in the middle of things and have to figure out what’s happening in this world on the cusp of WWII where certain people of color seem to have magical powers. We also follow three POVs, but consecutively which is something I’ve never read before, and I actually enjoyed how they could feel like three different stories but also so very connected. The characters are compelling, though not always likable, but I was quite interested to know what was gonna happen to them. And what a pleasant surprise it was to find that one of them is a biracial Hindu character, whose beliefs influence how he perceives his magical gift.

While the story and writing are one thing, it’s the thematic elements of the book that stood out. As an America during late 30s/early 40s, racism is very much alive and we see it in small microaggressions to bigger scarier moments. We also see biracial characters - both white passing and not - as well as Black characters try and navigate this world where they may have some magic of their own, but ultimately they are powerless in the face of white supremacy. We also witness the effects of generational trauma caused by slavery and everything after that, and how this trauma influences the actions of different people in myriad unexpected ways. There is also the underlying theme that it’s not enough to carve out a safe place for ourselves in a world that makes us powerless, but it’s also important that we fight to make the world better and maybe take some of that power back with whatever resources we have. We owe this to the ancestors who suffered unspeakable horrors which many didn’t survive.

In the end, I honestly don’t know how to articulate what I felt about this book. If you are a fan of noir, enjoy reading historical stories through the lens of people of color living a tough life in those times, don’t mind some purple prose and like your fantasy to have strong themes - then you might enjoy this book. But it also has mob bosses, dirty cops and politicians, and undercover operations; so be prepared for a good amount of gore and violence.
Profile Image for Litzsiereads.
109 reviews10 followers
July 29, 2020
Oh how bad I wanted to love this book!

I just couldn't connect with it. I was looking forward to reading about Phyllis, this bad-ass character who is a black assassin in Harlem that specializes in throwing knives but my interest kept slipping. The timeline, flashbacks and visions had me a bit confused so I couldn't follow the story easily. It also includes two other perspectives which didn't interest me. I think I pictured the story differently from how it turned out and that may be the reason it disappointed me. Great book, bad timing.

Yet, I definitely recommend Trouble the Saints because the elements in it may capture you differently than it did for me. Trouble the Saints covered Harlem New York City, the Russian mob, night clubs, corrupt cops, assassins and magic. While including people of color, ethics and love. Give this one a try, it may be your next 5 star read.

Thank you Macmillan-Tor/Forge through Netgalley for approving my request to read Trouble the Saints in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Loc'd Booktician.
424 reviews341 followers
July 9, 2021
Wow! When I interviewed her I knew she had a fascinating mind and I had no idea how fascinating. This was a very multi-layered book. The combination between fantasy, destiny, and the segregation was beautiful. I love the use of “the saints” hands and what that meant for different characters in the book. Each character had an unique talent or purpose. I felt that none of characters were playing supporting roles. They all were show stoppers. 
Profile Image for Mike Dillon.
28 reviews6 followers
August 11, 2020
Trouble the Saints troubled this reader. Even after reading other reviews, I did not find in this book anything close to what I was expecting. I was hoping for righteous women of color kicking ass and taking names. Or an alternate history of World War II, where soldiers wield magic along with rifles. Or a story of forbidden love, where our young lovers must overcome their obstacles and themselves to be together. I did not find any of these things in Trouble the Saints. What I did find was magnificent prose wielded by surgeon of writer, intent on showing you the story you want to read, just within your grasp, but unwilling to hand it over, satisfaction like the carrot before the mule, dangling in plane sight, but forever out of reach.

This book followed three protagonists, but contains no heroes. Phyllis, Dev, and Tamara all think that they are good people who just happened to be wrapped up in a situation where everyone around them is evil. They all think they're the good kid, who sits above their peers on the moral high ground. Each of them goes through a realization of their own faults, and their own guilt, and each set out on a redemption arc. I found it incredibly frustrating how naive these three were in moments of self reflection, when their judgments of each other, and of the other characters in the story were so prescient. Ultimately, their failure to confront their own faults leads to their redemption stories lacking gravity to redeem them of their previous sins.

The magic in Trouble the Saints is interesting, but not very well explained, or utilized by the wielders. Some people of color have magic powers tied to their hands. Each of these "Hands" has it's own unique abilities. Phyllis's hands are imbued with superpowered dexterity, which she has used to become a knife-throwing assassin. Dev's hands can perceive any threat to anyone. Tamara's hands have the power to tell people's future using a deck of playing cards like a tarot deck. These "hands" have always developed throughout history in subjugated peoples to be used against the white oppressor. So it was disappointing that these three would-be heroes used the power of their hands to serve the Russian Mafia rather than to break off the chains of oppression of segregated society in the 1940s.

The love story between Phyllis and Dev, or Dev and Tamara, or Tamara and Phyllis is NOT one of forbidden love. They all were able to be with each other at anytime. Rather, it seemed to me that one kept removing themself from the equation either as self punishment, or to punish their lovers. Again with seeing yourself on a moral high ground, despite your own flaws. They all were so close to satisfaction throughout the book, and it was awfully frustrating to watch them all come so close to finding happiness with themselves and with each other, and to miss it every time they were given the opportunity.

Alaya Dawn Johnson carved her prose in Trouble the Saints with as much grace as Phyllis had with her knives. I was absolutely transported when she was writing of 1940s Harlem. I swear I could smell the sweat and spilled liquor on the sticky dance floor of The Pelican, the Harlem gin joint where most of our story takes place. There was a lot of slow-revealed backstory, seamlessly woven with the action of the present. The back and forth time jumps were easy to follow and came at just the right pace to keep my interest in both theaters. Truly, the writing itself is this novel's strongest point, more than the characters, the magic, the sex, or even the setting itself, which was also brilliant.

I didn't particularly enjoy reading Trouble the Saints. As engrossing as the words on the page were, the story they told was frustrating and unsatisfying. I think that was intentional though. The societal problems that our main characters, all people of color in 1940s Harlem, encountered are still prevalent in our society today, and just as their own individual redemption arcs remained unfulfilled, so does the promise of a future of equality. To me this was a pessimistic story about three anti-heroes who couldn't face themselves, any more than America was ready to face its' own heart of darkness in the 1940s. As a work of literature it was outstanding in a genre that often lacks this caliber of prose and introspection. As a speculative fiction book, it just wasn't a whole lot of fun.

I would like to thank the author, publisher, and netgalley for the opportunity to read and review Trouble the Saints, by Alaya Dawn Johnson.
Profile Image for Ms. Woc Reader.
489 reviews669 followers
July 23, 2020
Assassins? Old Harlem? Noir feel? Sounds like the ingredients to a great story. Instead what I got was a dense and endless tale. I knew this book wasn't for me when I was only 15% in after having read it on and off for a few hours. I did not expect the book to be this disappointing. Pea wasn't even an interesting assassin. She's already given up killing at the start of this book and refuses to kill a woman who is clearly trying to and almost does take her out. Dev was a love sick puppy over Pea. Tamara had the most interesting story of them all with her powers as an oracle however this book was so convoluted that by the end I was weary and ready for it to end.

Please see longer more detailed review on my blog. Thank you Tor Books and Netgalley for the opportunity to read this book.
Profile Image for Mel (Epic Reading).
904 reviews274 followers
November 19, 2020
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.

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:
"Does just avoiding bad things make you a good person? Don’t you have to do good things for that?"
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.

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.
Profile Image for Lata.
3,589 reviews191 followers
December 23, 2020
This book was challenging. Not because of the three PoV characters. Rather, I had some difficulty telling at times when in the characters' histories a particular event was occurring. However, I did like this book, and really liked characters Phyllis and Dev, the mob boss' assassin bartender, respectively.
The two are constantly skirting danger, using their abilities, their "hands", that allow Phyllis to be a scarily good assassin, and Dev, to sense if someone is targeting him with violence. The third character, Tamara, is a dancer at the mob boss' club, and she tries to shield herself from knowing too much about what is going on with Victor (mob boss), and what Phyllis does for him. Tamara also regularly reads people's fates in her cards, and at the same time, seems to reject the responsibility of her ability.
Violence is ever-present in these people's lives, and the outcomes of their actions trail them for years, as guilt, as a possible curse, and as further violence. That they live in constant danger goes without saying, as all three, as well as supporting character Walter "Redman", are people of colour, and Victor has been cutting down anyone of colour who has a power that he wants.
Alaya Dawn Johnson gives us a good sense of what Harlem leading up to WW2, as well, as the extra dangers inherent for people of colour fighting for the US.
The text, especially in Dev's sections, is often quite poetic, and I quite liked the inclusion of this biracial character into a period and place I’m particularly fascinated by.
I think this author did a great job of weaving many different details together (Harlem leading up to WWII, crime boss turf fights, women finding ways to live on their terms, and their complicated motivations, despite the men around them) to tell a story of three complex people dealing with racism and looking for safety, love, meaning and worth.
Profile Image for Trike.
1,459 reviews152 followers
October 14, 2020
A brutally effective and affecting character study in a noir setting, where the issues faced by minorities and immigrants today are focused through the lens of a fantastical alternate bygone era. The metaphor of people of color possessing special abilities being exploited by those in power works incredibly well to underscore the issues of racism and power in our society.

Setting this in New York City just before America enters WWII allows us some distance from the horrors visited upon the main characters: a black woman who can pass as white with the uncanny hands of an assassin, an immigrant from India working as an undercover cop who falls for the deadly assassin, and the younger black woman whose job as an exotic dancers allows her to quietly ply her trade as an oracle. The secondary characters round out the world: the Russian and Italian mobsters, the hired gun who is a Native American raised in abusive foster homes, the black boy who can see the secrets of anyone he touches, crooked cops and corrupt politicians. That distance doesn’t change the fact Johnson is talking about today.

It’s hard boiled detectives and film noir femme fatales colliding with grimdark urban fantasy. Extremely brutal but it somehow feels real. I don’t know how that alchemy works, but it does. My only real complaint is that it drags quite a bit in the last third. This isn’t about plot, so spending further time with these sharply-drawn characters doesn’t really add much more to the story, because we already know them by now. The climax takes place just before the 2/3 mark, so that last section is a very gentle slope indeed.

Still, it’s a damn good book overall.

I want to draw a Venn diagram that has this book at the center of The Hum and the Shiver, Wild Seed, The Golem and the Jinni and Double Indemnity.
Profile Image for Adam.
374 reviews163 followers
July 15, 2020
The world-building in this story is truly fantastic, and easily my favorite aspect of the story. Johnson has also developed the three POV's quite well, and the ill-fated love story is emotionally appealing. The racial issues that were spotlighted were thought-provoking, and made me pause to reflect several times.

However, there were a couple of things I couldn't connect with. There were a few plot choices that I think could have been rearranged that would have made the earlier sections of the book easier to interpret, and potentially more enjoyable. I love a good mystery, but this crossed the line more than toed it. And the prose itself... let's call it 'dense.' At times lyrical, other times confusing at best. Sometimes I wasn't sure what kind of message Johnson was aiming for with some of her deep dives into the characters' philosophies, but it was difficult to ascertain what points she was trying to make.

It's hard not to recommend this book, as it contains so many good talking points and strong character depth. But be warned that you'll need patience to push through the first act and will likely spend more time that usual on a book this size.

3.5 / 5
Profile Image for ambyr.
878 reviews76 followers
October 12, 2020
Me, a third of the way through this book: This really isn't grabbing me.
Me, at the end of this book: Sobbing my heart out.

Look: I have a compulsion to never abandon a book unfinished, and I realize more often than not that this compulsion results in me spending hours of my life slogging through things to no purpose. But every once in a while . . . every once in a while, the need to see things through the end pays off. And that's why I keep doing it.
Profile Image for Taryn.
1,206 reviews187 followers
September 13, 2020
A dreamlike fantasy/alternate WWII history about people with magic hands, and the ways they’re forced to use their gifts to benefit the rich, crooked, and powerful. Harlem girl Phyllis’s hands are gifted with deadly speed and accuracy, and she’s been pressed into service as an assassin for a mob boss. She’s ambivalent about her career but soothes her conscience by telling herself she only kills bad people--her boss always gives her the background on her proposed victims and the choice is hers. When it becomes clear the control she thought she had was an illusion, Phyllis tries to get out of her life of crime and make a new start with her old flame, bartender Dev. They’ve had an up-and-down relationship--loyalties seem to be constantly shifting, and neither of them really knows who to trust until it’s too late--but theirs is a love story for the ages.

This is the kind of fantasy I want to read--the kind that doesn’t shy away from race and class and gender dynamics, but instead confronts them head-on. The kind that shows me something true about our current world even though it’s set somewhere totally different. I’d put it on the same “lush historical fantasy with a thread of romance” shelf with two of my favorites, Witchmark by C.L. Polk and The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.
Profile Image for Sana.
1,076 reviews959 followers
Shelved as 'anti-library'
March 6, 2021
An assassin fighting her fate in an alternate history novel, I WANT
Profile Image for Lauren Stoolfire.
3,559 reviews259 followers
November 21, 2020
I wanted to love Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson so much more than what I did. There are so many elements that practically call my name, especially noir, assassins, and magic. By the time I got to the end of the audiobook though I think I preferred the concept more than the final product. My main issues are that it's much too slow too slow even for me to call a decent slow burn noir, the magic system is not clear enough, and right from the beginning I felt out of the loop as if I were missing an important piece of information. Plus, on top of that I wasn't the biggest fan of the audiobook production.
Profile Image for Corey.
264 reviews15 followers
June 8, 2020
I absolutely loved the entire vibe of this book. Captivating and vividly written, this novel revolves around the themes of racism and forbidden love. Trouble the saints has definitely lived up to the hype and deserves to be one of the most anticipated reads of the year.
Profile Image for Isa King.
166 reviews17 followers
July 21, 2020
Truly, what can I say about this book? It's unflinching, gorgeously written, deeply nuanced and deeply felt. Alaya Dawn Johnson has prose that reads like poetry, and a talent for breaking your heart.

Set in 1940s New York, TROUBLE THE SAINTS is divided into three sections that follow three different—but deeply interconnected—characters. Phyllis LeBlanc is an assassin, an angel of justice, for the biggest mob boss in the city. Devajyoti is her barkeep-informant ex-lover. Tamara is his ex-lover, and her best friend. The three of them are blessed with certain talents, believed to be God-given or its exact opposite, and the each of them must reconcile how they've made use of said talents—what true purpose those gifts might serve, and if they have done enough to deserve them. The stakes are high from the beginning, and with each section, they keep rising.

If this plot sounds confusing or vague, it's because it is. This isn't really a book with a clear end game, so I don't recommend going into it with that kind of mindset. Rather, it is a more philosophical book that meanders between the choices these three characters make, or are forced to make, and how they carry those choices with them through to their bitter end.

This book is not a happy one, as you may have well guessed from the subject matter—the characters in this book are mobsters and assassins, who are on the darker end of morally gray, and they get the kinds of endings that one might expect from that life. Johnson doesn't pull punches about the kinds of violence that exists in this world, and moreover the kinds of violence that exists in the world in general for people who aren't white. This is a book about power and trauma, about the endless cycles of violence that people suffer—and sometimes, that they choose in order to feel like something other than the victims. This is a book about how history has a long and bloody reach, one that cannot be outrun or rejected, only embraced.

Johnson doesn't hold your hand through this novel. Her writing is incredibly immersive and opaque, with worldbuilding so tightly woven into a plot that the reader is just dropped into with no real footing. That might put some readers off, but I urge you to slow down and continue, because it is definitely worth it. I think it really captures the ways in which our cultural histories, their stories and their legacies, are so deeply embedded in how we live our lives that it can't be explained except through the act of living them.

If I could give this more than 5 stars, I would. I honestly think the comps are way off—this is not really a book for readers of Erin Morgenstern, who I also love, but is a little more fluffy in terms of the topics she tackles. Johnson has written something more gritty and raw, not to be taken lightly.

Highly recommended for fans of Catherynne M. Valente's DEATHLESS, Lara Elena Donnelly's AMBERLOUGH Dossier, Carmen Maria Machado's HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES, or River Solomon's THE DEEP. Dark and dazzling, and full of very cool vibes. Literally could not recommend enough.

Thank you to NetGalley and Tor Books for a free e-copy of this ARC.
Profile Image for Rachel.
99 reviews100 followers
October 16, 2020
This was a weird one for me. I almost DNF it in the beginning because it wasn't holding my attention, then in the middle it started to get interesting enough for me to want to keep reading it to find out what was going to happen and then the last third was able to hold my interest and pull on all the emotional strings. I wish that I had felt all the emotions throughout the entire story because honestly, it was a good one.
The magic system was fascinating, the examination of the concept of passing and what it causes one to lose/gain was deeply interesting, and the exploration into what makes a person a "good" or "bad" one was engaging.
Profile Image for Jordan (Forever Lost in Literature).
817 reviews104 followers
June 16, 2020
Find this review at Forever Lost in Literature!

If you're looking for something new in the fantasy genre, then Alaya Dawn Johnson's Trouble the Saints is probably exactly what you're looking for.

Trouble the Saints is an alternate fantasy that takes place right around the beginning of WWII and focuses on Phyllis, a girl from alternate history-Harlem who wants nothing more than to run from her past life and begin anew. The first thing that comes to mind when I think about this book is how immersive it was. I really felt like I was a part of this world and the way that Johnson sets up the world makes it feel vivid and and alive, though in a sort of noir quiet manner. There's also a plentiful amount of references and word choices that really convey the time period that Johnson is aiming for and made me feel sucked into the setting.

Don't let the comparison to The Night Circus fool you because this book really has nothing to do with it and that's to it's own benefit. I thought The Night Circus was a beautiful story, but Trouble the Saints was beautiful in its own right and doesn't need any comparisons. Although I had some trouble with the execution of the plot and XXX, I never put this book down because I thought the prose was beautiful enough in its own right to keep reading. There's a very noir-style feel to the atmosphere and I think Johnson did an excellent job of conveying this dark, mysterious sense that wasn't overwhelming, but that was constantly present in the background. This book also tackles some really important topics such as sexism, misogyny, race, and others, all of which are vital components of this story and really help to convey some interesting discussions and ideas.

Unfortunately, now we must move to discuss the elements of this book that I didn't like and which ultimately brought the star rating down. I do want to preface this by saying that I completely believe this is a 'it's not the book, it's me' situation in that I can see where it could easily be someone's new favorite read, so keep an open mind. The biggest issue I had was that I found the plot itself fairly boring. I mentioned that the prose was so beautiful that I kept reading, which is true, but the content of that prose just didn't grab me. I found the events that occurred a bit disjointed and there weren't a whole lot of events that made me strongly desire to pick up this book against after putting it down.

Additionally, I didn't really care for any of the characters themselves. Phyllis and the other characters were all interesting enough, but something about the way in which they were written always left me feeling as though I were being held at arm's length from them. In a way, this sort of fit the dark atmosphere that makes me feel like these characters wouldn't want to connect with others, but as a reader, there needs to be something that keeps me hooked. I also didn't care the multi-POV situation in this book, and I really felt like Phyllis should have stayed the sole narrator.

Overall, I've settled on 3.5 stars for Trouble the Saints! I initially gave it three, but honestly, I really like the direction and style Johnson took this book in, and I think it really did play with something new in the fantasy genre. I recommend this one to anyone who likes noir, alternate history, or simply trying new things in fantasy!
Profile Image for Leah Rachel von Essen.
1,199 reviews160 followers
August 10, 2020
Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson is a compelling book with fascinating antiheroes. Told in triptych form, covering the perspectives of Pea, an assassin for a mob boss, her former lover Dev, and her best friend Tamara, the novel focuses on an alt history where people of color inherit powers called the "hands", signaled by dreams—powers include a skill for knives and balance, a gift for sensing threats, and more. Johnson paints a rich world featuring Black, Indian, and Native American characters in post–World War II New York. The characters keep the reader's interest.

Ultimately, however, I struggled with some of the craft choices in this novel. The triptych ended up feeling like three short stories rather than one interconnected one—the first one wraps up way sooner than I expected, leaving me feeling a bit stranded. Some of the plot twists don't have enough character richness to support them, while others take the characters by surprise in a way that leaves the reader puzzled, asking themselves, "Didn't we realize that a few pages ago?" These two issues together result in a foggy plot that ultimately left me frustrated, and that ultimately overcame my attachment to the characters and drove me to mark this unfinished.
Profile Image for Brooke.
537 reviews289 followers
January 7, 2021
Given the author's past books, I was looking forward to this one so much, but I ended up really disappointed. The book is divided into three sections, with a different narrator for each section. The first section was fantastic, the second knocked me down to a 3-star area (not something I would recommend, but something I still was glad I read), but the final section ground all of the forward momentum to a halt and left me dreadfully bored. It was 100 pages of the final POV character just angsting angrily that the other two characters were judging her, interspersed with descriptions of reading fortunes in a pack of playing cards. The star rating might average out to 3 stars when looking at how I felt about each section, but the fact that I spent the last 2 days dreading picking it up and sighing and figuring I really ought to just finish it and move on makes it hard to give it more than 2.
Profile Image for Amanda.
1,573 reviews21 followers
April 15, 2020
I received a copy of this book in a Goodreads giveaway.

Between the comparisons to The Night Circus and the WWII setting, I was really looking forward to reading this book. Turned out I couldn't get away from it fast enough. I was averse to the main character almost immediately and the writing style was so boring it was nearly unreadable. I generally try to give a book at least 50 pages before giving up, but I could not stomach even that much of this one.
Profile Image for James Wade.
Author 3 books215 followers
March 16, 2020
Some books are just undeniably cool— like, assassins and alternate history cool 😎
Great prose, story, and characters. Loved it!
Profile Image for Jacqie.
1,611 reviews74 followers
February 12, 2021
Popsugar 2021: a book with fewer than 1000 reviews

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.

Profile Image for Jennifer.
Author 1 book102 followers
July 20, 2020
Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with an eARC in exchange for an honest review!

Two buzzwords for me that makes me want to pick up a book are grey characters and assassins - and wow, this books is filled with those.

While I struggled the first part to really understand the plot, to get the setting and to be able to, in some capacity, know what was going on - the later part of the books had my eyes read as fast as I possibly could. I read half the book in one sitting cause I couldn't put it down. Even though, I at some times, felt the book went over my head and I didn't really understand what was happening, it stills manage to left me intrigued to continue to read.

I really liked the three kind of main characters; Dev, Pea and Tamara. For me to enjoy characters I do really want them to feel human, to be gray and to have some undergoing problems. And these characters were full of those gems. Even though, I would have liked more backstory for all of them and even to get a little more understanding over how they met and what makes them who they were. I tho very much didn't understand the magic system, and I'm unsure if I even do it now even though I've finished the book.

The writing style is the thing that really keeps you continuing this book. It gripped me in a way that no other writing style has done before, and I can't wait to pick up more books by Johnson.

This book also very much deals with what it meant to be black during the upcoming of World War Two, but also handling a bit of colorism, racism and sexism. This is a book that is split up in three sections and follows a different characters thoughts - and I think that this book is built to be reread.
Profile Image for Juan Manuel Sarmiento.
680 reviews129 followers
June 29, 2020
What would happen if in the beginning of WWII in New York City, Black families possessed magical abilities best used for murdering?
Enter Phyllis, a black woman wo works as an enforcer and assassin to a mobster. She has the ability to throw knives and always get her target and her wish is to start a new life and get away from her currently life. At least that's the first third of the book because the other two parts focuses on other characters with their own abilities and desires.

Early on we get to discover how immersive the story is and how easy is to think you're watching film noir instead of reading a book. The author's style and words chosen fit so well with the ambiance, time period and setting of the novel.
I know this book is recommended for fans of The Night Circus; while I hadn't read it I did read A Starless Sea, by the same author, and I can easily make the comparison here because it has a beautiful story and lyrical scenes but the execution is so troublesome and confusing... But it's thanks to its atmosphere and way of putting words together that you're sucked into the book no matter what.

Trouble the Saints also get into other topics like misogyny, race and other important social troubles that are vital for the story as well as for the situation we're living in our own society nowadays.
Although I said before the style was beautiful I had so much trouble trying to focus on the plot because I didn't manage to care for any of the characters; while I think their characterization fits the dark atmosphere, their way of proceeding felt somewhat disjointed and the multi-POV just makes it harder to feel some sort of attachment for any of them.

I give this a 3.5 stars out of five 'cause I really like the direction and style the author took this book in. It also is a really original novel in the fantasy genre and we need more diverse books like this. The noir elements, the alternate history chosen and the magic system are all so interesting and I guess some other readers might enjoy this story more than I did. But keep an eye on Alaya Dawn Johnson cause she's going places.
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