Nalo Hopkinson, “Brown Girl in the Ring” (1998) – I gotta level with you all, readers: until maybe a month before I started this book, I thought it was about a brown girl living in a ring habitat, as seen in Larry Niven’s “Ringworld,” which I recently reviewed. This is why I paired that book with this in the election gimmick I did, where I had Citizens vote on themed pairs of books! I thought it would specifically show up the racism of classic scifi writers. Niven wasn’t the worst with that but he wasn’t the best, having contributed to the pretty racist “Lucifer’s Hammer” with Jerry Pournelle. I thought the brown girl would be in the ring and show all those engineering Marty Stu’s what for, or something.
This wasn’t that! It’s actually an old Carribean children’s song sung to a ring game kids would play. Many of the chapters are opened by the lyrics of similar games. It also stands for the ring around which semi-post-apocalypse Toronto, the setting of this novel, is surrounded. First Nations sued Ontario so bad they had to give up on its biggest city! The Toronto-dwellers are trapped. This was written in the nineties so maybe the city was a bit less tidy/gentrified than it is today… Arguably, “the ring” is also the ring of combat against the fate to which Ti-Jeanne, the titular girl, might otherwise be stuck in.
Ti-Jeanne is a young woman with a baby, a missing mother, a formidable grandmother who practices West Indian spirit magic, and a fuckboy ex-lover who has one foot in and one foot out of post-apocalypse Toronto’s gang scene. She doesn’t have it all that bad, as far as survivors of a trapped dead city go. You see a fair amount of the city going about its life, surviving in its ruin, making little farms and businesses and stuff.
Alas, Ti-Jeanne also has a tendency to see spirits, and the future. She’d rather not be involved with the spirit world of her grandmother, dreaming of running off to the burbs with her ex-, Tony, but the spirit world has its own idea. So, too, does the Prime Minister of Canada, who needs a heart. Despite the fact that they’ve perfected using pig organs in this future, the PM wants a human heart, for political reasons. So, her fixers contact the gangs in the Toronto wasteland for a fresh human heart. Guess who the gang boss, Rudy, jobs it out to? Tony, the fuckboy ex, who stole from Rudy to fund his drug habit! Fuck!!
Ti-Jeanne and her family come into conflict with Tony, who can never decide if he wants to use grandma Gros-Jeanne’s magic to disappear and escape, or to just cooperate with Rudy. Rudy, in turn, turns out to be a lot scarier (and more connected to Ti-Jeanne) than anyone figured, largely through the strength of using the dark side of the West Indian/Caribbean magical tradition, making zombies and enslaving duppies, the spirits of the dead. He wants to finish off the assorted Jeannes and consolidate his hold over Toronto.
Rudy comes for Tony and Ti-Jeanne, with gunmen and dark magic. Ti-Jeanne has to accept her role as a seer and ritual daughter of the spirit of the crossroads, even though it’s scary and weird. Good magic, in the fine old way, doesn’t help as directly as evil magic in scary situations, but evil magic comes with much higher costs.
In general, this was pretty fun. Some of the blurbs and what have you recommend reading it for social commentary, but I didn’t see much of that, beyond the idea that men are maybe a tad unreliable. I think people just say that about books with protagonists who aren’t white men, or upper class white women. It doesn’t need the answer to racism or a particularly innovative plot, when it has well-paced action, some good gore and spooky stuff, and cromulent characters. It can be a good, fun book, which is all anyone needs it to be. ****