by Nalo Hopkinson
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted February 16, 2021
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Midnight Robber, the second novel from newly named SFWA Grand Master Nalo Hopkinson, was a finalist for numerous awards, including Hugo and Nebula. It is science fiction, but relies heavily on African/Caribbean folklore, with both the dialog and most of the exposition in Caribbean Creole patois, or "patwa" in the vernacular of the main character, Tan-Tan Habib. She lives on Toussaint, a planet settled primarily by people from the Caribbean islands. Her father Antonio is mayor of Cockpit County. He is obsessed with his power, and in his philandering ways. As is often the case with men of his nature he has multiple affairs, but can't tolerate it when his wife takes a lover in her loneliness. Antonio challenges his rival to a duel, which is supposed to end only with one conceding defeat, but Antonio relies on another for a poison to coat his machete. His opponent dies. Antonio claims he only intended to incapacitate him, but it's hard to trust his word. He is arrested and incarcerated, along with Tan-Tan, seven years old at the time, until her mother can retrieve her from the jail. She had stowed-away in the trunk of the police car, but before she hid there the man who had provided the poison also gave Tan-Tan a device to give to her father when no one else was watching. That device provides them a means of "escape."
During his time as mayor Antonio had exiled many a criminal from the colony, although he was not fully aware of what that entailed. He learns the hard way that a trip to New Half-Way Tree is to an alternate dimension, where the exiles have to fend for themselves on a hostile planet. They also lose their connection to eshu and Granny Nanny. The traditional Eshu is a god of the Yoruba of Nigeria, the trickster, alternately known as Papa Legba. He knows all Earth languages, serving as a messenger between the gods and people. In this story eshu is an artificial intelligence that everyone accesses through implanted earbuds. The words they receive through the earbuds are called nannysong, from Granny Nanny, or the Grande Anansi Nanotech Interface. The first being they encounter on New Half-Way Tree is a douen, a creature with bird-like head and feet, but with more human-like arms with four-fingered hands. This douen has learned to speak, but since he learned from others from Toussaint, he speaks in the same Creole patois. His name is Chichibud, and he helps Tan-Tan and Antonio travel through the bush to a nearby human colony, where Antonio meets people he had personally exiled, and Tan-Tan learns she has a half-sister. Several years pass, Antonio acquires a mate, but also indulges his baser desires. At this point I have to provide trigger warnings for situations that are likely to upset some; physical and emotional abuse, and rape.
Tan-Tan has to flee the village, aided by Chichibud and his packbird Benta, who flies them into the forest and their home in Papa Bois, their daddy tree, described as being as big as a mountain. Tan-Tan learns the douen way of life, and the secret of why no human had ever seen (or known to have seen) a female douen. Benta, the packbird, is a hinte, the female of the species. It's not an easy life for Tan-Tan, since douen eat mostly live insects and small animals, and are disgusted with the way Tan-Tan needs to cook her food. As much as she learns of how to navigate and survive the forest and the bush, you would think that part of the story also encompassed several years, but it's only a few months, enough for Tan-Tan to realize she is pregnant. She misses being with humans (tallpeople as the douens say), but she also knows she cannot return to her village or else she will face their justice. When she was a child on Toussaint she had been fascinated by the legend of the Robber Queen, whom many portrayed in costume and custom during the yearly Carnival. She begins her own Robber Queen campaign, stealing from some human villages, but also giving away some of her bounty to others in need, Robin Hood style. The only problem with that is stories told about her get back to her village, and justice comes calling.
This is a coming-of-age story of considerable power, of betrayal and revenge, but ultimately redemption. All of the old ills of humanity had come to New Half-Way Tree; greed, jealousy, anger, lust for power, and just plain lust. The douens teach Tan-Tan valuable lessons of conservation and respect for the land, as well as the proper understanding of all the planet's predators. The douen also recognize humans as potentially the most dangerous predators, and they adopt some of their tools and weapons to be used in their defense. At first it seems Tan-Tan's affiliation with the douen could mitigate the situation, and that might happen in a future not depicted, but her activities invite human scrutiny, and retaliation. Tan-Tan is ostracized from Papa Bois, along with the young hinte Abitefa, who had helped Tan-Tan find human settlements and kept her secrets.
A minor criticism; the story covers several years, rambling a bit, with several disconnected sequences of stories told by others of Tan-Tan, the Midnight Robber. Some of those might be fabrications, not anything Tan-Tan actually did. The broken English and syntax of Toussaint and New Half-Way Tree's language can also be difficult to follow at times. It's even more pronounced than in Nalo's first novel, which I found easier when read aloud. I don't do audio books often, but this might have been better that way. I was wondering why the third-person exposition was also in that patois, but that becomes clear in the end. There were many children born on New Half-Way Tree, but Tan-Tan was the only child who had been exiled from Toussaint. It seems the earbuds of all adults were rendered inoperable, but somehow Tan-Tan's retained a connection. She could not access Granny Nanny, but the system could track her. It took several years, but Granny Nanny finally found her. There has been much discussion about artificial intelligence, of the dangers of programming human biases into our machines. That would also apply to our languages as well. Granny Nanny was programmed by those who spoke the Creole patois, so that is the language of the system. Granny Nanny is the one telling the story, to Tan-Tan's newborn baby, whom she has named Tubman. If you can get into the rhythm of the language you are in for a rewarding story, even through all the trauma. Recommended.
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