Brown Girl in the Ring: Ahead of its time

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Nalo Hopkinson Brown Girl in the RingBrown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson

Brown Girl in the Ring is a novel that may have been a little ahead of its time. When it was first published in 1998, it had “Science Fiction” stamped on the spine. Cue angry Amazon reviewers complaining that it was full of “mumbo jumbo.” If I were to wager a guess, I’d say that Brown Girl in the Ring was marketed as science fiction because of its near-future setting and heavy violence level, which were not nearly as common in late-nineties urban fantasy as they are today (see Ilona Andrews, for example). Yet this is unmistakably urban fantasy, with a strong horror streak. I could see it picking up many new fans if it were rereleased today.

The world of Brown Girl in the Ring is frighteningly plausible; it’s the logical conclusion of suburban sprawl and consequent urban decay. Here, even the city government has fled to the suburbs and no one is left in the inner city but the poor. Those who remain are living a third-world life with no electricity or sewer system. You can’t get into the hospital unless you are wealthy. Rudy, the diabolical crime boss of Toronto, is selling organs to these hospitals, and let’s just say the donors are less than willing.

And in this city lives Ti-Jeanne, a new mother, with her wise grandmother, Gros-Jeanne. Gros-Jeanne wants to pass on her knowledge, but Ti-Jeanne only grudgingly learns herbal skills and wants nothing to do with Gros-Jeanne’s other talent: the practice of Afro-Caribbean magic. Then one night they hold a ritual to help Ti-Jeanne’s deadbeat ex-boyfriend, and the spirits tell Ti-Jeanne that it is her destiny to stop Rudy’s evil.

We are sucked in as Ti-Jeanne’s course becomes more irrevocable, as she comes to accept the orishas, and as her ex-boyfriend’s fear and drug addiction drive him into worse and worse trouble. Ti-Jeanne’s only hope lies in her wits and in half-remembered bits of magical lore. An awesome touch is the climactic scene in which Ti-Jeanne figures out a way to make Rudy’s lair, the CN tower, work for her. I won’t say any more, but it’s so clever it makes me grin every time I think about it.

I recommend Brown Girl in the Ring to anyone who enjoys near-future urban fantasy, and who doesn’t mind violence; this is a very gory novel, as befits a story that is gritty in every aspect.

Brown Girl in the Ring — (1998) Publisher: The rich and privileged have fled the city, barricaded it behind roadblocks and left it to crumble. The inner city has had to revive old ways — farming, barter, herb lore. With nowhere to turn, a young woman must open herself to ancient truths, bargain with the gods and give birth to new legends.

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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