Check it out if you enjoy: Someplace to Be Flying, Anansi Boys, urban fantasy that’s not about vampires
Guys, I really like audiobooks. I got on the bandwagon kind of late, but since I’ve been doing most of my commuting on foot this summer, I’ve found they’re a great way to consume fiction on-the-go. (And considerably safer than my usual method of gluing my eyes to my phone while navigating Denny Way. Nothing has really changed since I was a kid, when my mom constantly told me to stop reading while I’m walking — only the medium.) But they do present a couple of challenge when it comes to reviewing. It’s harder to go back and reference stuff, for one thing; I don’t have spellings of names and places easily available, for another. Most of all, though, listening to someone read the book adds another layer of interpretation between me and the author’s words, and I have to take that into account when talking about my impressions of the book. So reviewing a novel I consumed on audiobook is a little more like reviewing a play or a movie: there are the author’s words, and there’s the performance and interpretation of the reader.
And but so anyway. Sister Mine is a 2013 urban fantasy novel by Jamaican author Nalo Hopkinson. The story centers around Makeda Joli and her sister, Abby. Abby and Makeda are formerly-conjoined twins with a fraught relationship, and they’re biracial — in that they’re half human and half god. Their father, Boysie, is Papa Bois, the Trinidadian god of living things; their mother, Cora, is a human woman. Well, was a human woman. She’s a lake monster now. It’s complicated. You know how gods are.
Good things first: Hopkinson paints such fine portraits of a place (Toronto) and a pantheon that even though I’m not familiar with them, I never felt lost. Well, not lost — but I was left wanting more information about the world we were in. Makeda and Abby’s extended family, in particular, are a fascinating group of characters who obviously have complicated relationships, old feuds and so forth, as gods will. Those relationships were very clear, but I wanted so much more detail about the stories they were based on. Hopkinson tantalized rather than revealed, and left me googling for more information.
The worldbuilding also felt rich and mythic, deeply rooted in Afro-Caribbean tradition but still full of modern surprises. The character of Lars is probably the best example of this: he’s an enspirited object, an idea that feels very classical and folkloric (and at one point in the book he talks about other enspirited objects from folklore, like John Henry’s hammer). In Lars’ case, though, the object he used to be is Jimi Hendrix’s guitar — a thoroughly modern myth. It’s a really deft blending of old and new.
But with that folkloric feel comes a batch of inconsistencies that sometimes got frustrating. One of the central storylines is Makeda finding out whether or not she has mojo — magical ability, inherited from her divine father — and the number of twists and turns in that plot sometimes seemed self-contradictory. She doesn’t have mojo! No, she did but she doesn’t now. No, she does but it’s in someone else. No, she does and this character knew all along– No, she doesn’t and this character knew all along–
And that was my biggest frustration with the book as a whole: it frequently felt tangled or unfinished, much like Makeda’s knitting. A number of fascinating characters introduced at the very beginning of the book were dropped. (Why did Maturity just disappear from the book? She was SO INTERESTING. I want a whole book about Soul Train!) Storylines and character arcs doubled back on themselves. The characters we did spend time with sometimes changed motivation within pages (e.g., Abby going from “your flying carpet is an abomination” to “your flying carpet is the coolest thing ever” and back again in rapid succession). I tried to justify those switches in characterization while I was listening — after all, people in real life aren’t exactly bastions of consistency most of the time. Plus, folklore and myth often have that same self-contradictory feeling, where the rules change without warning. But that justifying was distracting work. Come to think, that might be part of why Lars is my favorite character. He’s a solid dude with a nice British accent throughout.
This is where I start to ponder the difficulties of making an audiobook, and how that medium affects the story. Great audiobook narrators do an amazing job of creating distinctive voices for each character, and Robin Miles, who narrates Sister Mine, is no exception. Her dialect work alone is worth the price of admission. Her voices range from the Caribbean Islands to various parts of Africa to London, UK, and throughout the broad spectrum of black North American vernacular. Once the listener learns which voice goes with which character, it’s possible to hear her have a conversation with herself and rarely have any confusion over which characters are involved.
But voice work isn’t just about dialects. It’s about tone, musicality, and tempo as well. And it seems to me that sometimes this means characterization is necessarily flattened slightly. As soon as Abby was introduced, for instance, I knew that she was the sharp, bitten-off, staccato voice — so when Abby was written as saying something not cranky or judgmental or sharp, something felt dissonant. The nuances I might be able to create in my head while reading the book are lost. On the one hand, I really do think this is part of the medium, not something to lay at Robin Miles’ doorstep. Simon Vance, who narrated two vastly different books I’ve listened to recently (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and His Majesty’s Dragon, my current book) has the same problem at times. On the other hand, listening to Girl with the Dragon Tattoo never left me feeling that the characters were inconsistent, so I do think there’s something in the writing itself of Sister Mine that bugged me.
All this being said, I did enjoy the book. It reminded me strongly of Charles de Lint’s Newford books, which have been favorites of mine for a good decade. Even the tendency to introduce and then drop tantalizing side characters and stories reminded me of de Lint. The world of Sister Mine is wide and complex, and the novel itself seems like just a glimpse of it. The characters — inconsistent thought I may have found them — were people I wanted to get to know and spend more time with, and Robin Miles’ voice work really is an inspiration. I don’t think I’ll be re-listening to Sister Mine soon, but I think it would stand up to re-reading. And I’d definitely read a sequel.
Caveat lector (spoilers ho): There’s a lot of frank discussion of sex and a lot of matter-of-fact incest. This is, after all, a story about gods. If reading about sisters experimenting sexually with each other and their cousins is going to squick you, take a pass on this book. There’s some violence, too, and some disturbing sequences — nothing that pinged me as particularly gory or horrific, but then I watch Hannibal for fun so my sense of such things is a little skewed.