Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson

Mama Obeah, give us strength.
Let's face it: both the science-fiction and fantasy genres are often white-washed and severely lacking in racially diverse voices, especially when it comes to the representation of black experiences. Nalo Hopkinson is Jamaican-Canadian and a queer black woman based in Toronto--my hometown, which is pretty cool. She is a member of an emerging Afro-Futurism literary movement that most scholars agree was spearheaded by prominent black writers during the 1970's and 1980's such Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney. In her debut novel, Hopkinson has decided to put her own Afro-Caribbean spin on the urban-fantasy genre but the end result is a wildly uneven effort. Perhaps some of the novel's faults can be attributed to this being a first novel but it pains me to say that there really is not a whole lot to recommend here. The story feels overly familiar and bogged down by cliches, blatant inconsistencies, triviality and aimlessness. The prose is unpolished and clunky. The characters are flat, unconvincing and one-dimensional. My main criticism is the weak female protagonist. She is often clueless and makes such baffling decisions, helped steadily along by happenstance. The lack of an emotionally engaging and sympathetic character whose personal demons are believable does not allow us to become personally invested in the story. Also, don't get me started on the main villain who is so cartoonish that it is downright laughable. 

On a more positive note, the use of Caribbean patois/vernacular is refreshing and the magic system is somewhat unique although I wish the author had delved more into it's complexity and cultural roots. She incorporates voodoo and Caribbean folk-lore into her post-apocalyptic setting of Toronto (it was fun to recognize the various streets and places mentioned) that has become ghettoized, overrun by poverty, crime, violence and drugs. A highly addictive substance has hit the streets and is causing mayhem. All the rich people have moved outside the city to the suburbs leaving Toronto in the hands of gangs. Again, we have seen a similar kind of set-up like this many times before. I don't mind if authors rely on using familiar genre conventions, just back it up with good writing and make it interesting in some way. Unfortunately, Hopkinson does neither of these very well and the novel often feels rather dull and disjointed as it trudges along towards a lackluster deus ex machina ending. Nonetheless, I will give her kudos for having the CN Tower as the crime lord's headquarters.

We certainly need more authors of color to be recognized in the SF/Fantasy genre and while this novel was disappointing, Nalo Hopkinson demonstrates that she has a creative imagination but has not yet hit her stride as an accomplished writer. 

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