Monday, 15 August 2016

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson: Review

3.5 stars

Thankfully, this was a book which started off somewhat weakly, and only got better from there!

'Brown Girl in the Ring' is set in a dystopic Canada where Toronto is almost completely sealed off from the suburbs surrounding it. The rich live prosperously in the suburbs, whilst the poverty-stricken remain in the ruined city, for they could not flee it during the deadly riots that caused its collapse. Toronto is now ruled by a ruthless gang led by the vicious Rudy, who has been tasked with finding a human heart for a suburbian politician's transplant. He orders a member of his Posse, Tony, to carry out the transplant, despite knowing that the heart will be harvested through an act of murder. The novel from there follows the life of Ti-Jeanne, a woman who has very special powers, and also happens to be Tony's on-off again girlfriend. Ti-Jeanne's grandmother has the power to invoke magic as a healer, and Ti-Jeanne herself is being troubled with increasingly disturbing visions of the deaths of those around her. As the worlds of Tony, Rudy, and Ti-Jeanne collide, Ti-Jeanne must learn to harness the powers she has been gifted with in order to save her family.

As you may be able to ascertain from this summary, the story is quite a unique dystopia, fusing together elements of social commentary with urban fantasy and Carribean folklore. It was refreshing to read about a different culture's myths (contrary to traditional Western legends): I loved reading about the Gods, especially the Prince of Cemetery. Throughout the novel, Ti-Jeanne experiences various mystical visions sent by the spirits, including many of the Jab-Jab, a sinister creature with a devillish sense of humour. These 'waking dreams' were vividly described by Hopkinson, and were so enjoyable that they significantly increased my appreciation of the book after a disappointingly dull start. Once the fantasy elements had begun to seep into the text, 'Brown Girl in the Ring' really improved.

The magic system was lovingly described by Hopkinson's captivating prose. The ritual scenes are genuinely unsettling and exhilirating, and this atmosphere that she conjures is partly created by her manipulation of language. Here Hopkins describes the music during a ritual: "Mami took her place on the stool, put the drum between her knees. With her fingertips and the heels of her hands, she began to beat out a rhythm. Ti-Jeanne recognised the pattern of sounds. She'd often heard that rhythm in the loud drumming coming from the chapel at nights. She hated it; it tugged at her blood, filled her head with sound until she thought it would burst from within, her skull cracking apart like an overripe pumpkin to reveal the soft, wet interior." (P92). It's simple, but very effective.

I did have some qualms with the novel though. Some of the characters were a little underdeveloped, especially Rudy, who was only a little better than a one-dimensional villain. Later on in the novel, we gain greater insight into his character, but for the most part, he remains relatively flat . However, Ti-Jeanne showed some strong character growth, and Tony was also well developed, although I was not very invested in the relationship between them both. However, it did open the door to this wonderful little quote: "like everything Tony had ever given her, this gift had thorns". I appreciated how the novel resolved key events and tied up lots of loose ends, but I felt that a lot of the narrative twists were clunkily revealed. I also was not entirely convinced by the connection between the transplant/life in the suburbs and city life: Premier Uttley's character felt almost redundant, apart from a redeeming arc later on in the novel.

However, on the whole this was a fresh, exciting urban fantasy that is well worth a read for fans of speculative fiction.

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