Midnight Robber takes place in the indeterminate future, on the largely Caribbean-influenced colony world Toussaint. The characters all speak Anglo-Patois, and Trinidadian Carnival traditions play an important role in the first section of the book, including the titular Midnight Robber. The little girl Tan-Tan is the daughter of passionate but immature parents, and as the background of her life is revealed, we also learn that in this future, humanity has achieved its interstellar empire thanks to a massively intelligent and powerful AI, the Grand Anansi Web, or Granny Nancy. After Granny Nancy emerged, it appointed itself guardian of the species, and its systems are everywhere, monitoring everything but not interfering in human customs or justice unless lives are threatened. So when Tan-Tan’s father Antonio murders a man, he’s exiled to Toussaint’s alternate-dimension counterpart, New Half-Way Tree. But as part of an effort to evade the omniscient web, Antonio flees on his own before he can be sentenced, taking Tan-Tan with him.
New Half-Way Tree is a penal colony for the most violent and dangerous criminals, and has no Granny Nancy providing information, comfort or oversight. Tan-Tan’s life there is difficult, made worse by her father’s abuse and alcoholism (there are some tough scenes, but none of the descriptions are graphic). But she finds friendships with the sentient natives, reptilian-ish people called douen. And when, at 16, she commits her own unforgivable crime, she finds shelter with the douen, the first human allowed to live with them and learn their secrets. With the douen, Tan-Tan has to learn a great deal very quickly, including how to be her own self, away from her father’s toxic influence and in the shadow of her guilt.
Midnight Robber is a great second novel, showing a lot of growth in Hopkinson’s voice and world-building. The style has a deliberately mythic feeling, being partly narrated by a mysterious someone telling the legends that have sprung up around Tan-Tan’s life, and I do like a good Anansi story. The douen are wonderful, both surprising and familiar. And there are so many facets of the larger universe that are hinted at but lie outside the scope of the story. I don’t know if Hopkinson plans to write any more books set in this universe, but I’d love to read one. Until then, I’ll have to settle for rereading Midnight Robber. The story has a lot of layers and allegorical asides, and I think I’d get a lot out of it the second time around.