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Book Review: Sister Mine, by Nalo Hopkinson

The exterior paint job [of the apartment building] was something else, in a weird wacky way that I loved. Probably years before, somebody had slopped teal green paint onto the raw brick. They’d used a dark, muddle purple for the exterior window rims and sills and the edging around the roof. Then, for good measure, they’d lined the inner surfaces of the windows’ rims with dark yellow, kind of a mango colour. Made the windows look like the insides of baby birds’ beaks when they gaped them wide and demanded food from their exhausted parents. — from Chapter 1 of Sister Mine

Nalo Hopkinson is a new author to me, and this book is (I hope) the first of two I will review in the next two weeks as part of Aarti’s Diversiverse challenge (also the reason for my out-of-character back-to-back weekend posts).

The book is definitely a bit outside my usual fantasy comfort zone, primarily because it’s set firmly in an alternate version of the real world rather than the epic-fantasy secondary worlds that tend to draw my eye. The main characters are first-person narrator Makeda and her twin sister Abby, who were born conjoined. The surgery that separated them left Abby with limited use of one of her legs, but as the book jacket puts it, “[it also] left Makeda with what feels like an even worse deformity: no mojo.” Abby and Makeda are the half-human children of a wilderness demigod and one of the servants from the human family who have long served the demigod capital-F-Family. Their other relatives include Uncle Jack (the god of life and death) and Granny Ocean (the goddess of guess-what), along with gender-ambiguous twins Beji and Beji. Because I know that Hopkinson is Caribbean-Canadian by background, I found myself looking for parallels between the divine system she sets up here and the Yoruba-influenced Caribbean orisha traditions, but was quickly forced to admit that I don’t know nearly enough about the religion to recognize possible homages to it here.

The central conflict of the book is the relationship between the two sisters. Abby has a touch of her divine family’s mojo (magic), a spectacular singing voice; Makeda has no mojo, and struggles with feeling left out of the only family she’s ever really had (the girls’ mother was punished by the divine Family for her relationship with their father and hasn’t been a part of their lives since their birth). I enjoyed the family dynamics in this book a whole lot: I think Hopkinson does a phenomenal job of demonstrating that a big, raucous divine family really has quite a bit in common with a big, raucous mundane family (speaking as someone who grew up in possession of one of the latter). I was also a big fan of Hopkinson’s prose; as the paragraph at the top of my review suggests, she has a real gift for description. The interactions between the divine and mundane worlds reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but unlike Gaiman’s Shadow, Hopkinson’s protagonists inhabit both worlds fully (like any code-switching young woman might be expected to) and struggle to find a place in each.

All in all, there were many things I liked about this book. The language and world-building are beautifully done, and give the setting a very distinctive feel. Mundane humans are “claypickens”; magic is “mojo” or “shine”; one of the supporting characters is Jimi Hendrix’s guitar in human form.

For all that, I didn’t get drawn into the book as deeply as I expected to. Other reviewers have suggested, and I agree, that the text feels in places like Hopkinson’s trying to weave together too many subplots — what’s going on in Makeda’s new apartment building? what will happen to Makeda and Abby’s father now that his mortal body is failing? how could Makeda have made such a fabulous piece of art with no mojo? — and losing track of her central thread. I also felt as though the book could have done with maybe one less reversal of its central storyline: the question of what really happened when the twins were born and whose mojo is really where gets turned on its head at least three times in the course of three hundred pages.

I would recommend the book on the strength of its worldbuilding and characters, but I would say that it’s not a book for those (like me) who like their plot neatly tied together. I’ve seen several other reviewers note that Hopkinson’s books generally tend to be more tightly plotted, and so I am planning to try another to get a chance to enjoy her worldbuilding and prose against a more unified backdrop.

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13 Comments

  1. aartichapati

     /  September 14, 2014

    So glad you participated in the challenge, and I also hope you are able to review the other Hopkinson book you have, too. I think tight plotting matters a lot to me, too, but I also love the premise of this book, so maybe I’ll read it, anyway. I have her Midnight Robber on my shelf and was hoping to read it for #Diversiverse. Not sure I’ll quite get finished with it in time, though.

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    • Thank you so much for organizing the challenge, Aarti! It’s such an important movement to support, and (as a free bonus) a great way for all of us to learn about a few new authors worth reading. 🙂

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  2. This sounds really good to me. I love books with complicated family dynamics.

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    • This book definitely has Complicated Family Dynamics in spades 🙂 I am a big fan of the divine family pantheon motif in general because the gods always seem to turn the drama level up past what mere mortals would think to do… 😉

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  3. tuulenhaiven

     /  September 15, 2014

    I’m glad to learn about this author, even if this isn’t their best work. Maybe I’ll check one of the other books out – but this one does sound pretty good, plotting-issues aside…!

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    • I would say the book is still definitely worth reading if you think the other aspects sound interesting! And I will definitely be checking out some of Hopkinson’s other books as well.

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  4. I’ve had this on my list for a while. Interesting to read some thoughts on it beforehand.

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    • Thanks for reading! I’m not nearly as good a reviewer as Aarti yet, but I’m glad someone(s) out there is getting some value from the reviews:)

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  5. I liked how you analyzed what worked and didn’t work so well in this book.

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  6. Thanks for a great review. I appreciate your ability to be so specific about a book.
    My favorite of hers is Brown Girl in the Ring. Unusual in my experience. Even I could follow the gods and goddesses in it.

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