Midnight Robber

Nalo Hopkinson
Midnight Robber Cover

Midnight Robber


Intended Audience: Adult
Sexual content: Explicit
Ace/Genderqueer characters: yes (A.I.)
Rating: R for sexual violence, language, and other violence
Writing style: 4/5
Likable characters: 4/5
Plot/Concepts: 4/5

Tan-Tan, daughter of Antonio, the mayor of Cockpit County, lived a fairly pampered life. That is, until her parents' games of infidelity went too far and Antonio was banished for cheating in a duel with his wife's illicit lover. At first she was glad he'd come back to take her with him on this new adventure, but before too long she understood exactly how terrible her exile would be.

Midnight Robber was much darker than I expected from the summary I'd read. I expected it to be a bit more of a magical adventure rather than the heart-wrenching coming-of-age story that it was. I'll warn readers right up front that it deals with sexual abuse, incest, suicidal feelings, and other heavy themes. There were some fairytale-like elements, to be sure, but with the grittier flavor that old-time fairytales (or in this case, "anasi stories") often have.

The setting makes for a great blend of Caribbean magic and science fiction. Tan-Tan lives on a planet called Toussaint whose culture is heavily patterned after traditional Caribbean culture, but with modern technology integrated seamlessly. Every house has an "eshu", an A.I. which takes care of everyone inside, and all the eshu are in contact with Granny Nanny, the ultimate A.I. which guides and directs the fate of humanity as a whole (or at least the citizens of Toussaint). Similarly, each person has "nanomites" injected into them at birth, which allow them to hear the voice of all the A.I. as needed. There are also those who wish to remain "headblind", or free of the watchful A.I. around them, and these people often insist on doing things the old-fashioned way in other areas of their lives as well. Needless to say I loved this whole dynamic, although for much of the book Tan-Tan's contact with her beloved eshu is cut off while she is in exile at New Halfway Tree, an alternate-dimension Toussaint where technology is virtually nonexistent.

This wasn't as distressing as I expected, however, because new fascinating characters show up immediately. New Halfway Tree has many native creatures which I assume could have existed on Toussaint before the arrival of humans, and were probably wiped out. The douen, named after a supposedly mythical creature, are some form of bird or reptile (or both). The males have narrow snouts like beaks, but teeth as well, and they also have hands and the capability for human speech. The females lean more toward the bird side of things, with actual beaks and a more limited capacity for human speech, although they are just as intelligent and speak their own songlike language quite beautifully. Chichibud the douen is the first person to welcome Tan-Tan and her father to New Halfway Tree, and as he takes them to the nearest human settlement, he teaches them about survival in the bush and defends them from dangers like the mako jumbie (an enormous bird, at least as terrifying as a T-Rex). I took an instant liking to Chichibud, as he proves himself to be honest, kind, but also quite clever.

The rest of the book deals with the rape Tan-Tan suffers from her father, her escape into the bush, and the ensuing fight for survival against her wicked step-mother. There are other dangers, most of them in human form. Along the way she splits into (and must later reconcile) three parts of herself, named Good Tan-Tan, Bad Tan-Tan, and the Robber Queen. The Robber Queen is patterned after the Midnight Robber character, which people often dress up as during carnival each year, speechifying to the masses in exchange for gifts and money. Tan-Tan loved playing Robber Queen as a child and this persona becomes both a refuge and a guide for her journey toward wholeness.

On the whole the characterization in this book was excellent. Every major character was distinct, and I came to care quite deeply for Tan-Tan and her adopted douen family in particular. Each person was a fair mix of good and bad, so that even the people who did truly scummy things could also pull my sympathies at certain times. That's not to say that their evils were made light of, but simply that each person's flaws and strengths were shown realistically. This is especially useful to understanding Tan-Tan's struggle, because despite all the bad her father has done he was also the (human) parent who loved her most, and she misses the good part of him. People who suffer abuse often have this sort of conflicted feeling toward their abuser, and it makes it very difficult to escape the situation without guilt. Through her struggles Tan-Tan learns of her own strength and her own goodness despite all the voices inside and outside telling her that she is tainted by what was done to her. I think that's a very positive and well-delivered message.

The writing style certainly sets this book apart! Hopkinson writes in a mixture of pidgin-English storytelling and more mainstream-style narration. Sometimes I couldn't figure out why certain sentences were more "proper English" while so many others were Toussaint-style. At first it was very difficult to get into. I had to turn off my grammar critic before I could truly enjoy it, but once I did, the unique style made it all the more memorable and I think it really added something to the immersive experience. The hardest part was the way pronouns don't change, so for example when you talking about she, she hair or she two legs-them, is always she you say. But in other sentences "her" is used. So it's a little confusing, but I think it's meant to show a distinction between a more distant "realistic" perspective and a more personal, mythical perspective, depending on what part of the story is being told. There are lots of individual words I'd never encountered before, but the meaning was fairly obvious from context so it wasn't a problem. Linguistically, what is "correct" is completely dependent on culture and context, and so the use of such a style is completely appropriate for crafting a story meant to carve out a place of belonging for people who identify with Tan-Tan's identity. It was not alienating to me as a reader, either!

Overall I'd definitely recommend Midnight Robber for anyone who'd like to read something a little different and yet familiar (as long as they're not too disturbed by the sometimes repulsive content). The story structure is fairly conventional, but the individual elements of the world and the adventure are what set it apart. It becomes a great bridge between cultures in that way and I think that's only appropriate given the journey Tan-Tan undergoes. Hopkinson is one writer I would be happy to revisit.