Moving out of your parents' house to go live on your own is a tough business for anybody — but it's way harder when one of your parents is a Celestial, and your twin sister has all the magic. In Nalo Hopkinsons' new novel Sister Mine, family drama is a life-and-death affair.
In Sister Mine, Makeda, is the daughter of a Celestial and an ordinary human. She was one half of a pair of conjoined twins — and when she and her twin sister Abby were separated, Abby got all the power.
As the child without magic Makeda’s looked down on by most of her family — when they deign to notice her at all. But her powerful sister is against her moving out, and her beloved father’s physical body is close to death. Throw in the fact that the new apartment she’s just rented comes with a live-in handyman she’s supposed to assist, who might have a connection the Celestials himself, and things get complicated fast.
An urban mythological fantasy bildungsroman, Sister Mine is more than another cookie-cutter book about a leather-clad witch hunting vampires in a bland everycity. Like all the best urban tales that incorporate the fantastic, Hopkinson brings to life the culture of the setting, Toronto, as well as the people in it. The mythology Hopkinson uses here is both ancient and new, like the city itself.
The Celestial family that Makeda’s father belongs to are clearly the Orishas of West African origin, and though in this modern age they have new names, they are recognizable to anyone with knowledge of African traditional religions. Cousin Flash and Aunt Cathy’s acrimonious divorce, complicated by their control of lightning and thunder, General Gun and his stern demeanor, Aunt Zeely’s uncompromising beauty, the motherly love and vindictive punishment of Grandma Ocean — these are all new faces added to older beliefs. These newly invented characters manage to reinvent the traditions, while keeping the inherent nature of them intact. Hopkinson’s Celestials manage to be immortal, ageless and beyond human ken — while at the same time being petty, modern and all too human.
Makeda’s journey is dotted with bits of Toronto history, like the kingstie hoax and journeys to an otherwordly court accessed via a city alley where her sister is visible as a streak of light — all of it firmly grounded in urban reality. Makeda doesn’t just worry about getting away from her powerful family, she also worries about how to make rent on a dishwasher’s salary. She not only has to worry about a haint trying to kill her, but also how it looks to others, when they see an angry Afro-Canadian woman carrying a super soaker, easily mistaken for a real gun, in a busy metropolis. Unlike many fantasies in urban settings, in Sister Mine the realities of urban living do not disappear as soon as magic makes an appearance.
Hopkinson is extremely talented at crafting complicated protagonists, and Makeda is no exception. She's trapped between the need for independence to prove that she can stand on her own, and the insecurity that there may be nothing special about her. Makeda is a character struggling with discovering who she is which is complicated by the insecurities she’s internalized from her family. The scenes where Makeda’s emotions spiral can both infuriate the reader and endear you to her as a fully realized, human character. A few of her reactions seem entirely overblown, but Hopkinson does a great job of showing you Makeda’s childhood and where this all springs from. You understand the ways in which she’s been made to feel inadequate her whole life, and the blindness of her Celestial family to how they contributed to it. This personal history is portrayed so well, you can’t help but agree with her outbursts on some level. In fact there were a few spots in the book where you want her to have a bigger reaction than she does. I did sometimes find it hard to place Makeda’s age — sometimes it felt like reading the point of view of a woman in her mid- to late thirties and other times as if she were in her late teens. This could be jarring at times, but didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story and perhaps makes sense if you’re raised by an immortal Celestial whose perspective on time and aging is understandably different.
The best thing about the characters in this book is the quintessential human contrariness they all harbor — whether human or the enspirited guitar of Jimi Hendrix. Their conflicting personalities make them more three dimensional, and no one acts as if they are cardboard cutouts reacting to a script. Makeda may resent the stifling protection of her sister Abby but she also yearns for the familiarity it offers. Abby, as the newest Celestial in centuries, is well-respected — but she is also mortal, and her romantic choices have not been without controversy. Naima is at once a small child and vessel through which an orisha communicates. None of the characters in this book are easy or simple to figure out and neither are their relationships with themselves or each other.
One of the things to appreciate about Hopkinson’s writing in general, and here in particular, is her refusal to wrap up every single detail without question. Often the endings of her novels leave minor questions or ongoing discussions unanswered — this is not to say that her works feel unfinished in any way, but they always give the hint that more is going on beyond the pages of the book. Her books always feel like glimpses into worlds that are fully detailed and stand on their own. If Sister Mine is the first Hopkinson book you read, it will definitely encourage you to go back through her back catalog and for current fans it’s another great novel from one of the best fantasy authors working today.