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The Salt Roads
Nalo Hopkinson
Warner Books, 397 pages

The Salt Roads
Nalo Hopkinson
Nalo Hopkinson has recently published a collection of short stories, Skin Folk, in addition to her first two novels, Brown Girl in the Ring and Midnight Robber. She has lived in Toronto, Ontario, since 1977 after spending most of her first 16 years in the Caribbean, where she was born.

Nalo Hopkinson Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Skin Folk
SF Site Review: Brown Girl In The Ring
SF Site Review:Whispers From the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction
SF Site Review: Midnight Robber
SF Site Review: Brown Girl in the Ring
Interview: Nalo Hopkinson
Excerpt: Midnight Robber
Interview: Nalo Hopkinson
Nalo Hopkinson Short Story

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Jayme Lynn Blaschke

It says something about a writer's skill and talent that even their misfires should be recommended reading. Nalo Hopkinson's The Salt Roads is a misfire, but a happy one. If a novel strives for greatness and settles for merely good, well, that's still better than 90 percent of everything else.

Hopkinson is unabashedly ambitious this time out, and that approach shows throughout -- from the structural flourishes and abrupt scene shifts to the meticulous research and word selection on every page. A lot of love and sweat went into the crafting of The Salt Roads, but the end result is not equal to the sum of its parts.

The novel is built upon a tripod framework, following the threads of three separate stories in different eras. The readers are introduced to Mer, a Haitian slave struggling to survive a brutal sugar plantation existence as revolution brews; Jeanne Duval, a whore and mistress to poet Charles Baudelaire in 19th century France; and Meritet, a Nubian prostitute who flees her master to seek adventure and inadvertently becomes St. Mary of Egypt. The characters' sexuality is front-and-center in the narrative, stark and uncompromising, which is unsurprising in light of the afore-mentioned characters and their lifestyles. Their lives are harsh to different degrees, and every day presents some sort of struggle of one form or another. Hopkinson paints a vivid, graphic picture with prose, one that few readers will find pretty.

Linking these three pillars upon which the narrative is built is Ezili, a newly-born goddess of love and sex spawned by the grief and magic evoked by Mer and her companions as they bury a stillborn child in the dark of night. As Ezili struggles to come to grips with her existence, she comes to inhabit and experience human life through Duval and Meritet, all the while tied to the slave community of Haiti and their African gods which invoked her. It's a fascinating premise, but also where The Salt Roads begins to falter. There's little balance among the main narrative threads -- Mer's story dominates the first half of the book, and is, by far, the most interesting of the three. Unfortunately, it lacks any sort of satisfying ending or resolution, and is effectively dropped well before the book closes. Jeanne Duval merely feels out of place. Her story begins shortly after Mer is introduced, and Ezili returns to her time and again throughout the novel. Duval is not a very sympathetic character, however. She is wholly self-centered, locked in a destructive relationship with an equally self-centered man. The least interesting of the main characters, she ironically has the strongest character arc, becoming a much wiser -- and much happier -- person by the end of her allotted pages. Taken out of the context of the novel, Duval's story would stand alone without any trouble, a sort of historical character study. Meritet's story, on the other hand, barely stands on its own within the pages of The Salt Roads, much less without. Readers don't meet Meritet until nearly halfway through the book, and even then the story breaks away from her for long stretches. The reason is simple: Meritet doesn't do much. She works in a brothel. On impulse, she books passage on a ship, hoping to see Jerusalem. She ends up in the desert, suffers a miscarriage and is taken for a saint. That's it. The fact that Ezili's final fate is intertwined with Meritet's in the finale is incongruous: Meritet's back story and buildup simply isn't substantial enough to support such a load.

Hopkinson poses many questions here, raises many issues that are not resolved. In part, that's because there are no easy answers, but after a point the reader suffers diminishing returns. Challenging is one thing, opaque is another. At times Hopkinson proved too clever for her own good -- several times I was stopped cold and knocked out of the story, trying to puzzle out the meaning of her interludes and cryptic single-word section breaks. I suspect I'm not the only one.

Despite these failings -- or perhaps because of them -- I still have to recommend The Salt Roads. Sure, I'd rather Hopkinson had written a different novel, one where all three main narratives were more balanced and interlinked. Or, even better, one that focused itself wholly on Haiti and the strange magics that moved within the slave culture there. One that actually pursued the concept of the "Salt Roads" that connected Africa to the Caribbean to fruition. But by the same token, I don't believe anyone should tell Hopkinson what to write. The voice she brings to speculative fiction is fresh and vibrant, even if the things she writes of are more often ugly than not. She takes us places no one else wants to take us -- no one else can take us. Really, what greater goal can speculative fiction have?

Copyright © 2004 Jayme Lynn Blaschke

Jayme Lynn Blaschke graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in journalism. He writes science fiction and fantasy as well as related non-fiction. A collected volume of his interviews, Voices of Vision: Creators of Science Fiction and Fantasy Speak, is due out from the University of Nebraska Press and he also serves as fiction editor for His web log can be found at

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