It is entirely thanks to the book blogging community that I have discovered Nalo Hopkinson. I have spent the last few months actively looking for female SFF writers that I didn’t know yet (thanks again to the WWE Women of Genre Fiction Challenge) as well as writers of color, stories about people of color and LBTQ characters. Because, as much as I read, there are very few non-American or non-European writers to be found on my reading lists and I wanted to remedy that. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech also served as an eye-opener and I found it extremely inspiring. There is so much diversity out there and I want to experience it. Nalo Hopkinson and Octavia E. Butler’s names kept coming up and all of their books sounded so good that there was no reason for me to wait any longer discovering them. Thank You, Internet!
Published by: Warner Aspect, 2000
Paperback: 336 pages
My rating: 8,5/10
First sentence: Oho. Like it starting, oui? Don’t be frightened, sweetness; is for the best.
It’s Carnival time, and the Carribean-colonized planet of Toussaint is celebrating with music, dance and pageantry. Masked “Midnight Robbers” waylay revelers with brandished weapons and spellbinding words. But to young Tan-Tan, the Robber Queen is simply a favourite costume to wear at the festival–until her power-corrupted father commits an unforgivable crime.
Suddenly, both father and daughter are thrust into the brutal world of New Half-Way Tree. Here monstrous creatures from folklore are real, and the humans are violent outcasts in the wilds. Here Tan-Tan must reach into the heart of myth–and become the Robber Queen herself. For only the Robber Queen’s legendary powers can save her life…and set her free.
Seven-year old Tan-Tan lives on Toussaint, a Caribbean-colonized planet, where she – like everybody else – is connected to the Granny Nanny Web through the nanomites in her blood. Being the daughter of the mayor of Cockpit County, she leads a happy life and wants, more than anything, to play the Robber Queen at the upcoming carnival. But the story doesn’t open with Tan-Tan. We first get to know her father, Antonio, who has his own troubles to deal with. A cheating wife, the constant surveillance of Granny Nanny, the lust for more power. When he catches his wife cheating on him and challenges her lover to a duel, his and Tan-Tan’s lives are about to change forever.
As soon as they arrive on the parallel planet of New Half-Way Tree which is used as a prison colony, the story really starts to kick off. Tan-Tan and Antonio have to learn how to survive in the bush of this new world. The local species, the douen, help them survive their first days and lead them to a human village where they try to make a new life. But as Tan-Tan grows older and starts looking more and more like her mother, Antonio commits a terrible crime that will haunt his daughter and turn her into the real Robber Queen of New Half-Way Tree…
When I picked up this book, the first thing I noticed was the language. I had never read anything written in Anglopatwa before and I admit it took a few pages to get used to. But after these few pages, the prose had a beautiful flow to it and told Tan-Tan’s story very organically. If the beginning puts you off, I urge you to keep reading. The style adds a layer of atmosphere to what is already a fantastic story, part science-fiction, part mythological fantasy. Personally, I loved every page and even caught myself thinking in patwa every once in a while. There are French words strewn among the English, the grammar is simplified, but there was never a moment where the language didn’t make perfect sense. It felt so natural that I couldn’t stop turning the pages.
One of oonuh tell me about junjuh mould. It does grow where nothing else can’t catch. When no soil not there, it put roots down in the rock, and all rainwater and river water pound down on it, it does thrive. No matter what you do, it does grow back.
Characterization and world-building are done phenomenally, not through info-dumps, but through action. We are never told how the ‘Nansi Web works but it becomes clear from the context and the interactions between characters and their earbuds. New Half-Way Tree is a whole new world to discover and because it is as new to Tan-Tan as it is to the readers, we are introduced slowly to its secrets. From the human settlements and their basic governments, to the flora and fauna of the place, to the culture of the natives, the douen, everything felt utterly vibrant and alive. It was a pleasure to discover this place! I particularly enjoyed the myth-like stories the narrator tells every once in a while. The origin story of New Half-Way Tree in particular got to me.
It ain’t no magic in do-feh-do,
If you take one, you mus’ give back two
After all this praise, I must say this was a strange reading experience. I would pick up the book, devour page after page, put it away and suddenly lose all urge to continue reading. I would pick it up again, wonder what was wrong with me, how I couldn’t want to read this fantastic book anymore. And so it went for a while. I really can’t tell you why that was. In retrospect, some passages feel a little slow or drawn-out, but while I was reading I couldn’t find fault with the pacing at all. Not a single part of the plot was boring and I did want to know how Tan-Tan’s story continued – so my conclusion is that it is just me. The reason I’m telling you this is simply because, if you feel the same about the book, don’t let it put you off. Continue reading, it really pays off.
Needless to say, I am incredibly happy to have disocvered Nalo Hopkinson. I can see why she is hailed as one of SFF’s best young authors. One thing is certain: This will only be the first of Nalo Hopkinson’s books I read, not only because the language showed me a completely new aspect of SFF fiction but because this book tickled all my soft spots. The mixture of science fiction and fantasy, mythology and survival story, a fantastic female protagonist and a fascinating alien species… I mean, what more can I want? That’s right, a good ending. Until it happened, I had no idea whether this would end well or terribly, and either way would have worked for this story. I found the ending satisfying in its half-open, half-resolved way. In fact, I could not have imagined a better way to end this book.
If you like original, fresh fantasy or science fiction, do yourself a favor and pick this one up.
THE GOOD: Great use of language, fantastic characters, beautiful world-building, and a fascinating alien culture.
THE BAD: Said great language may not be for everyone.
THE VERDICT: A highly-recommended book by an incredibly talented writer whose work I’ll certainly continue devouring.
RATING: 8,5/10 – Absolutely excellent