Title: Midnight Robber
Author: Nalo Hopkinson
Publisher: Warner Books
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got it: I found it at a used book store
Content warning: This review discusses rape and incest that occurs in this book.
Tan-Tan lives a charmed life on the planet of Toussaint. She’s doted upon by her father Antonio, the mayor of Cockpit County. She’s cossetted by her mother, Ione, and her nursemaid. Even her eshu, the bio-interfaced AI connected to the omnipresent computer network Granny Nanny, heeds her every wish. But just because this little girl has led a happy existence up until now doesn’t mean things won’t change. When Ione has an affair behind Antonio’s back, he challenges the interloper to a duel.
However, Antonio doesn’t play fair and is sentenced to exile on the headblind planet (that is, one that lacks an overarching AI network) of New Half-Way Tree for inadvertently killing his rival. Tan-Tan, who always felt closer to her father anyways, sneaks away with him on the interdimensional ship that leads to exile.
Life on New Half-Way Tree is harsh: in a world without eshus and Granny Nanny, you have to rely on your own body to do all the work. There are strange creatures in the bush, and a planet full of exiled prisoners isn’t usually known for its civility. But what’s even worse is that Antonio takes his frustration over his exile out on his daughter, abusing her both physically and sexually.
The night before Tan-Tan’s sixteenth birthday, when she will legally become an adult, Antonio flies into a rage when he finds out about her plans to run away with her childhood sweetheart, and rapes her. Panicking, she murders him with the birthday gift she got from her stepmother: a hunting knife. But in her village, the penalty for murder is execution, so she runs away into the bush to avoid capture, eventually learning how to survive in the wild and becoming the Robber Queen, a Robin-Hood-like do-gooder who punishes the wicked for their transgressions.
As Midnight Robber progresses, stories about Tan-Tan’s real life meld with the fantastical myths that are embroidered with her name. Only at the end do we realize who the audience for this narrative is: Tan-Tan’s unborn son, the product of her rape. Midnight Robber ends with his birth, and her acceptance that she’s his mother, even if he’s the result of incest.
Midnight Robber is a book I’ve had a conflicted history with. I first read it in high school, where I received an autographed copy for taking part in some sort of extra curricular activity I can’t remember.
I read it and disliked it. The incest? The rape? These were experiences far outside of my sheltered suburban life, and I found them too troubling to engage with. Ultimately, I fobbed the copy off on my high school friend LaToya — she had been suggesting I read Brown Girl in the Ring for a while, and I figured that since I disliked Midnight Robber so much, she might as well have it and enjoy it. The book left such a strong, unpalatable taste in my mouth that I still haven’t read Brown Girl in the Ring over a decade later, even though I know that rationally it’s worth a shot.
The fact that I reacted this way to Midnight Robber is something I’ve felt bad about for a long time. In fact, let’s face it: my reaction was racist, because I rationalized my decision to give it to LaToya by thinking not only well, she’s already read Nalo Hopkinson but also well, she’s black, so she’ll probably like it.
Yeah: Teenage Me was a real shithead.
So when I recently saw a copy of Midnight Robber for sale on a used bookstore shelf — right smack dab in the middle of Black History Month, when I was looking for more black authors to read — I thought okay, I can rectify this. The more remarkable thing is that the copy I found was the same edition I read in high school and had Hopkinson’s autograph in the front, just like the one I gave away. It felt appropriate.
Reading it as an adult, I’m amazed by how much of this novel I missed as a high school student. The Granny Nanny system of Toussaint is similar to the internet as it currently exists — but I originally read it about 15 years ago, when Geocities and Angelfire were the cutting edge.
However, rereading it also felt like a slap: I knew the sexual abuse would happen, and Antonio’s attempts to groom Tan-Tan were stomach-churning because I knew what they’d lead to. But the groundwork for the awfulness of Antonio’s character is laid from the beginning — he’s manipulative, greedy, and self-serving, and it’s hinted at that he was abusive towards Tan-Tan’s mother back on Toussaint. As an adult reader, I can recognize a lot of the red flags that Hopkinson is waving regarding Antonio’s character, even if Tan-Tan herself is too young and trusting to identify them.
Most importantly, while Midnight Robber was written using Caribbean English, I didn’t understand back then how integral this cultural background was to creating the tone of the book. Toussaint and New Half-Way Tree were settled hundreds of years ago by people travelling on generational ships, but the contrast is that this time, these were ships of their inhabitants’ own consent and design, rather than the slave ships of long ago. Toussaint’s inhabitants celebrate this every year with a massive carnival where there are duels and music and revelry. The Midnight Robbers who stalk the carnival crowds, chanting impromptu songs to earn coins from passers-by, sound like rappers and slam poets.
I think now that my original reaction to the presence of rape and incest in the book was really a smokescreen for something deeper that I didn’t have the vocabulary to discuss back then: Midnight Robber is wonderfully, unrepentantly non-Eurocentric. From the dialogue to the worldbuilding to the mythical urban legends springing up around Tan-Tan — and especially the interplay between the original non-human inhabitants of New Half-Way Tree and the human exiles — this is a book explicitly centred from a black perspective.
In an adolescence that had been shaped by the compulsory school reading of Shakespeare and Harper Lee, and also by the fantasy works of Tolkien, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Garth Nix, this was an unspoken shock. I don’t think I had ever encountered a book before Midnight Robber that wasn’t “meant for” me.
It took over a decade and a half, a Bachelor’s degree, and years of reading smarter, more critical people on Twitter for me to be able to identify that feeling of shock. And I think I need to make up for lost time by reading more of Nalo Hopkinson’s work.