One of our recommended books is Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson


A Novel

The dangerous magic of The Night Circus meets the powerful historical exploration of The Underground Railroad in Alaya Dawn Johnson’s timely and unsettling novel, set against the darkly glamorous backdrop of New York City, where an assassin falls in love and tries to change her fate at the dawn of World War II.

Amid the whir of city life, a young woman from Harlem is drawn into the glittering underworld of Manhattan, where she’s hired to use her knives to strike fear among its most dangerous denizens.

Ten years later, Phyllis LeBlanc has given up everything—not just her own past,

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The dangerous magic of The Night Circus meets the powerful historical exploration of The Underground Railroad in Alaya Dawn Johnson’s timely and unsettling novel, set against the darkly glamorous backdrop of New York City, where an assassin falls in love and tries to change her fate at the dawn of World War II.

Amid the whir of city life, a young woman from Harlem is drawn into the glittering underworld of Manhattan, where she’s hired to use her knives to strike fear among its most dangerous denizens.

Ten years later, Phyllis LeBlanc has given up everything—not just her own past, and Dev, the man she loved, but even her own dreams.

Still, the ghosts from her past are always by her side—and history has appeared on her doorstep to threaten the people she keeps in her heart. And so Phyllis will have to make a harrowing choice, before it’s too late—is there ever enough blood in the world to wash clean generations of injustice?

Trouble the Saints is a dazzling, daring novel—a magical love story, a compelling exposure of racial fault lines—and an altogether brilliant and deeply American saga.

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  • Tor Books
  • Hardcover
  • July 2020
  • 352 Pages
  • 9781250175342

Buy the Book

$26.99 indies Bookstore

About Alaya Dawn Johnson

alaya dawn johnson, credit armando vega.jpgAlaya Dawn Johnson has been recognized for her short fiction and YA novels, winning the 2015 Nebula Award for Best Novelette for “A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i,” which also appears in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy (2015), guest edited by Joe Hill. Her debut YA novel, The Summer Prince, was longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Her follow up YA novel, Love Is the Drug, won the Andre Norton Award in 2015. A native of Washington, D.C., Johnson is currently based in Oaxaca, having finished her masters degree in Mesoamerican studies at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.


A Kirkus Reviews Best Fiction Book of the Year

“Juju assassins, alternate history, a gritty New York crime story… in a word: awesome.” —N.K. Jemisin, New York Times bestselling author of The Fifth Season

“Beware this magnificent beguilement of a novel: once begun, Alaya Dawn Johnson’s Trouble the Saints won’t let you go.” —Kelly Link, New York Times bestselling author of Get In Trouble

“Beautiful prose and an omnipresent sense of regret build an intense, dark mood throughout the whole book. Johnson explores the intersection of race, violence and personal identity in this powerful, passionate story.” Bookpage, “Science Fiction & Fantasy: August 2020″

“Johnson’s secret history is a nuanced portrait of racism in all of its poisonous flavors, brutally overt and unsuccessfully covert. In musical prose, she also offers passionate and painful depictions of the love expressed in romance and friendship and the sacrifices such love can demand. A sad, lovely, and blood-soaked song of a book.” Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“Literary firecracker.” Publishers Weekly

Discussion Questions

1. What do you like best about each of the protagonists? How do you think their strengths are shaped, and weaknesses too, by the powers that they’ve inherited?

2. Numerous secondary characters are integral to each of the three storylines; is there someone you most identify with? Think about why that might be—and how characters like Gloria, Mae, and even Miriam, complicate perception of family and underline the important themes of this book.

3. What parallels do you see in this story set nearly seven decades ago and our own lives today? How has power manifested itself, in American history, in the years since—and how have underprivileged people pushed back against it? Can any kind of large-scale transfer of power, like that wielded by Mayor Bell and Victor, occur without violence? What about smaller-scale ways of rebalancing the scales? List examples.

4. Which character or which power did you feel most drawn to, and why? Did Dev’s perspective on the story change your view of Phyllis? Did Tamara’s perspective change your view of Phyllis or Dev? Did you switch allegiances or notice a shift in how you identified with characters as they were depicted and exchanged throughout the three parts of the novel?

5. How do magic and reality, and historic fact woven with fiction, change your perception of this story? Do you think the settings—New York City, the small, fictional sundown town upstate, and the memories of Tamara’s youth in Virginia—make a difference to the experience of reading about racism? Does it change the sound and texture of the language to be set in such a specific time and place—and how?

6. The Pelican Club is full of secrets and performances and threats, but every character we meet has ultimately lied to themselves or the person they love most. Think of a time where you might have performed for yourself, or for someone you loved—and what the positive or negative consequences have been.

7. In the second section, what does the novel suggest about the differences between the childhoods of marginalized people and those of white people? How is Bobby Jr. juxtaposed with Alvin? What does it mean to be given a gift to fight injustice at such a young age? It’s suggested by Tamara’s visions that Pea and Dev’s child might be a new start—what do you think Durga’s life will be like?

8. What do you think about the lives of people of color who are adjacent to the “saint’s hands” but don’t have them? What about Sonny’s relationship to the hands that run in his family? Do you think Tamara’s own power is diminished or strengthened by not having “the hands” herself, despite the violence she was a witness to?

9. There are numerous references to art and artistry throughout the novel. Discuss the importance of creation in the lives of each of the protagonists and what value art has outside of the usual monetary sense.

10. Each section of the novel has its own particular style and theme; varying between Noir, Gothic, and Pastoral. In what ways does each narrative setting enhance our understanding of character and their particular arc in the overall story?

11. What do you think is the message of the last chapter and particularly Pea’s last fight? Do you agree with Dev’s worry, that the hands might be a cosmic joke, or do you believe in Pea’s fervent desire for a chance to make things right?

12. What do you think of the role the ancestors play in the novel? What do you think of the relationship of the voices of the past to the actions of the present?

Guide written by Alaya Dawn Johnson and Miriam Weinberg



“Oh, Phyllis…”

It had been Dev’s voice at the end of the dream; just his voice, warning me against nothing I could see; just his voice, pushing me awake, and away from him, again. He had only ever called me Phyllis in extremity: mortal danger, orgasm. I wondered which it would be this time.

“Christ,” said the dentist, jamming his cigarette into my silver ashtray and getting another. “Christ, where’s that lighter? I hate even thinking about Red Man, and you have to go and dream about him…”

“He’s not so bad. Not like Victor.”

The dentist flinched. “You know what they say, the things he’s done. You just like him because he likes you … you and that snake girl, what’s her name—”

“Tamara,” I said, not for the first time. The star of the famous snake dance at the Pelican Club was my best friend in the city. Lately, because my life has not tended to kindness, she’d also been Dev’s girl. But my own lover couldn’t bother himself to remember the name of some Negro showgirl.

I leaned over the dentist to take another cigarette too, but instead he caught up my hand and gently traced its scars. I hated when he did that, though I never stopped him. The dentist’s hands were chapped with alcohol and smelled like rubber, while I rubbed mine with shea butter every morning. But his had done nothing worse than pull teeth and fix caps for Victor and his men. He found my scars to remind me of the necessary distance between us, the dentist and the hatchet girl.

“Are you going to take the job, if it comes?”

Was it disgust that flattened his tone? Or indifference? My heart shuddered uselessly, but I kept steady and kissed behind his left ear, the way he liked. He groaned.

The dentist was my bargain; the dentist I could keep.

It was easier to move through the world with him on my elbow than alone, when the doormen were more suspicious of women of my complexion. Unlike most white men of my acquaintance, he rarely let a bad word escape his lips about Negroes or even any other group. Besides, he was handsome enough and in possession of an understanding wife. For those qualities, I overlooked his other lapses as a lover—an aversion to cunnilingus, the ghoulish whiteness of his teeth, the faint but clinging scent of antiseptic. My dissatisfactions were, I knew, the inevitable neuroses of his profession, and considering those of my own profession, I was inclined to anticipatory forgiveness, hoping to get the same gold for myself. If I lost him, I wouldn’t have an easy time finding an old man half so nice; not at thirty-five, with my first grays wiggling out of my lye-made hair, and the scars that only Dev might have loved.

“How long has it been since the last one, darling?”

“Months,” I said, not wanting to own the number—seven—which felt too long and too short. I took a breath before answering the other question. “They’re bad people, you know, that’s all Victor gives me. Murderers and rapists. Real scum. When I signed on with Victor, that was our deal. That I’d be more than a hatchet man. That I could make the world a better place.”

By killing people? You really believe that. I could hear Dev’s voice in the silence; the dentist only nodded.

“Russian Vic’s angel of justice. His holy knife.” Pronounced carefully, like he was reading it from a book.

My fingers locked. Most people called me that first thing—Victor’s angel, sometimes of justice. But only a few, the ones who had known me longest, called me his knife.

“Where did you hear that?” I asked.

The dentist looked out the window. “That—I mean, the Hindu bartender—Dev, right?—called you that once. Stuck in my head. Sounded more biblical when he said it, though.”

To Dev, there was no such thing as holy violence. I hadn’t quite believed him when he first said so, not even when I let him take me from the city. He told me about karma and the weight of our past and present lives, but I only felt it long after.

These days I avoided Victor, I refused jobs, I worried alone because I could not add to my ledger, and I could not bury my knives. But Red Man would visit soon. The dreams the hands give don’t lie. I had to choose, one more time.

I could go back to Harlem, to the shabby familiarity of the old apartment complex at the corner of 130th and Lenox. Move in with my sister Gloria and her husband Tom and their kids. Red Man would find me there but he’d leave me alone if I asked. I wouldn’t have Dev, and I wouldn’t have the knives, and I wouldn’t have everything I hated and loved about being Victor’s angel of justice—

Gloria loved me, but she wouldn’t open her home to a murderess, not even her sister.

“Aren’t you afraid?” the dentist asked.

For a jittery moment, I thought he had read my mind—or seen my ghosts. Lenox Avenue, the tony apartments on Sugar Hill around the corner, afternoon number runs for Madame Stephanie and the Barkley brothers, the barber shops and the stoops and the rent parties and buffet flats that lasted till morning, the sex and the poetry. Policy slips like numbered confetti in the silk purse bound tight by my garter.

But the dentist only knew Phyllis LeBlanc, not Phyllis Green.

“Afraid of the second dream,” he said when I just stared at him.

Copyright © 2020 by Alaya Dawn Johnson