Alaya Dawn Johnson’s 2020 Trouble the Saints is a standalone urban fantasy novel.
A lucky few have been given remarkable gifts, special powers in their hands that have been revealed by mysterious dreams. Some can sense malice with a touch, other can feel a person’s darkest secrets. Phyllis Green has a preternatural talent with knives. She works under the name of Phyllis LeBlanc, as an assassin who delivers pointy justice to deserving miscreants. Her boss? Depression-era crime-lord Victor.
“Victor’s angel,” as she is known, has come to terms with her bloody occupation by assuring herself that she is killing the worst of the worst. Because if you can’t trust a career criminal who has arrived at the top over the dead bodies of his rivals, who can you trust?
Phyllis’ occupation has cost her. The man she loved, a fellow employee of Victor’s named Dev, couldn’t abide her job. The two have broken up — though, since they work for the same boss, they have to live in the same social milieu, watching each other date lovers neither one likes as much as they liked each other. To make things worse, dancer Tamara is involved with Dev while pining for her own previous lover. She’s in the milieu. It’s a mess.
In other news, many people believe that it’s possible to steal the powers of the gifted hands by cutting off the hands. People like Phyllis are at constant risk from hand thieves. Such thieves are at the top of Phyllis’ to-kill list, a quirk Victor has exploited.
Victor has yet another request: he wants Maryann West dead. Tired of endless death, Phyllis would like to turn down Victor’s request. Too bad, because West (angry that Phyllis killed her boyfriend) will not hesitate to kill Phyllis.
Too late to save dozens of people, it belatedly dawns on Phyllis that’s she’s been a sucker, fed the lies she wanted to hear by a man with a very long list of people he wanted dead. She has not been protecting the gifted by killing those who would prey on them. She’s been working for one of the predators.
Phyllis would like to quit her job. But to quote the old movie
One of the little oddities about gifted hands is that white people are never given them. It’s a POC thing. I found this interesting because white is an arbitrary category. For example, this novel is set during the run-up to WWII, when Italians wouldn’t have been counted as white. Presumably, Italians could have been given gifted hands at this time, only to lose access once they clawed their way into the white category (by, as I understand the process, agreeing en masse to do terrible things to black people). The gifts are doled out by sentient forces, and there are reasons provided in-story as to why they would choose the people they do.
Quite a lot of the story revolves around late Depression-era/early WWII American racial tensions, specifically the fact that it was open season on black people. Now it just so happens that Phyllis is passing. There are good reasons to do so, but also a lot of reasons to fear exposure. Her fellow criminals would be outraged to discover they’ve been treating one of the Others as a colleague. Any upstanding citizens would fear being tarred as excessively open-minded.
Phyllis lives in danger from all sides.
The narrative skillfully weaves three points of view — that of Phyllis, that of her former lover Dev, and that of romantic hypotenuse Tamara — as it depicts Phyllis’ unwanted epiphany that she’s been a sap and the consequences that follow her new insight. It’s a grim little tale — even if the trio escape Victor, which is trickier than it sounds, they can’t escape their milieu.