by Nalo Hopkinson
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted June 18, 2021
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Sister Mine was published in 2013, the last (so far) of Nalo Hopkinson's novels. It won the Andre Norton Award for Best Young Adult Novel, and was a finalist for Locus and Sunburst awards. I personally would not categorize it as YA; it has many adult themes. At this time I'd say it is my favorite of hers I have read. Or perhaps just an equal to her first book, Brown Girl in the Ring, although it has been over three years and more than three hundred other books read since then, so I should re-read it to settle the debate. Sister Mine boasts dynamic characters, fantastical events, and a very unpredictable plot, with several misdirections along the way.
Set in Toronto, and told in first person by Makeda Joli, whose sister is Abby. They aren't just sisters, they are twins, and not just ordinary twins. They were cojoined at birth, but separated shortly after by their father and uncle. Neither their father or uncle are doctors. They are demigods, immortal celestials. The girls' mother, Cora, is human, or at least she was human until shortly after the birth. The other members of the Family rejected her, punishing her by transforming her into a sea monster and banishing her to Lake Ontario. Several times Makeda calls her mother a "kingstie," which at first I thought might be derived from Caribbean myth, but instead it refers to a sea monster hoax perpetrated in 1934 near Kingston, Ontario. Not only was Cora punished, so was the father, Boysie, who is a nature spirit. The girls' uncle is alternately referred to as Uncle Jack, Leggy Jack, or Mr. Cross. In other cultures he might have been called Papa Legba, the spirit of life and death, the one who transports souls to the afterlife. Boysie was punished by removing his soul and his mojo. At the beginning of the book he is very ill, residing in a nursing home. He retained his connection to nature, and while still living with the girls he interacted with animals and plant life to aid them in flourishing in good health.
The unpredictable things mainly focus on Makeda as she gradually learns truths about her existence. Not only was her father punished for reproducing with a human, the Family had wanted him to kill Makeda, who at birth was very weak, almost brain-dead. Abby would be allowed to live, but Makeda was to be discarded. Boysie would not let that happen. Abby has one leg considerably shorter than the other, so uses crutches or a cane most of the time. She is exceptionally bright though, and a musical prodigy. Makeda was sure Abby had some celestial mojo of her own, which manifested itself through her voice. While Makeda had always been told she did not have any mojo, she often pretended she did, even imagining certain observations and events as evidence of it. Everyone else, including Abby, had been keeping secrets from her, and it's not until she is an adult that she learns part of the truth, but later there are contradictory statements made, so she doesn't know who or what to believe. Makeda loves Abby, but they also fight a lot, and when she learns Abby and others have been lying to her she decides she needs to move out of the family house. She works only part-time at a fast food restaurant so she can't afford much, but lucks into a warehouse loft when she is offered reduced rent to be co-superintendent of the building. That works well for her since she is good with tools. The other super is Brie, also a musician, whose band has weekly concerts at the warehouse, and almost daily rehearsals. One thing that convinced Makeda she had at least a minor mojo was she could recognize someone else who possessed mojo themselves. She is convinced Brie does, but he denies it. Or is he hiding something from her too?
Most of the celestials are very arrogant, treating humans as slaves. Granny Ocean is probably the most arrogant, refusing to recant Cora's punishment even after Boysie's death. Uncle Jack is arrogant too, but he still tries to protect Makeda and Abby, although that doesn't mean always telling them the truth. The Hunter is anxious to take over Boysie's job, although he is more concerned with ruling over nature rather than nurturing it. Two of the girls' cousins are weather spirits that also have shape-shifting abilities. They can change gender at will too, and oddly enough, they share the same name, Beji. Perhaps that means they are actually one entity, just broken into separate parts. Regardless, they have also been lying to Makeda. They may genuinely care for her, but their actions are deemed unforgivable, Makeda telling them to never speak to her again. However, they may have redeemed themselves at the end. The major question throughout is whether Makeda has mojo, if it's her own or someone else's, held in reserve until needed. It's almost heart-breaking to see Makeda constantly depressed, doubting her own intelligence and abilities, doubting if anyone cares for her, or respects her. In the end, it's possible she's the strongest of them all. So many other wild things happen that I'm dying to talk about; what happens to Boysie when he dies, what remarkable thing Makeda creates while in a daze, why she thinks Brie has mojo, how one of Jimi Hendrix's guitars figures into the plot, but I won't go into details. All I'll say is it's highly recommended, a book not to be missed. Nalo is truly a Master storyteller.
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