Nalo Hopkinson's debut 1998 novel, "Brown Girl in the Ring," won two major awards for new work in science fiction, the Locus Award and the...

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“The New Moon’s Arms”
by Nalo Hopkinson
Warner Books, 320 pp., $23.99

Nalo Hopkinson’s debut 1998 novel, “Brown Girl in the Ring,” won two major awards for new work in science fiction, the Locus Award and the John W. Campbell Award. Such acclaim raises expectations high, and Hopkinson fulfills them in her Caribbean-set new novel, “The New Moon’s Arms,” a book that shows new depths of wisdom, humor and insight.

The novel opens in that starkest emblem of change, a funeral — but it’s a source of hilarity as a mourner tries, with failed subtlety, to shake off the too-loose panties that have fallen around her ankles. To hide her laughter, Chastity Theresa Lambkin — self-renamed Calamity with good reason — ducks behind her Dadda’s casket. Along with mirth, she’s feeling suddenly too warm, and her two webbed fingers are tingling.

Hopkinson’s fictional West Indian setting, the Cayaba archipelago, is home to two races, one unknown to outsiders and most locals (including Calamity). This sea-dwelling race originated a few centuries earlier, when an African witch woman invoked the goddess Uhamiri to free the suffering captives of a brutal slave ship. Freedom meant transformation, and since that wrenching moment, Uhamiri’s people have been shape-changing mer-folk who alternate, like the legendary Irish selkie, between human and seal forms.

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Author appearance

Nalo Hopkinson will appear at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Seattle Public Library’s main branch as part of a tribute to the late Octavia E. Butler. She will be joined by actor/director Timeca Briggs, Clarion West executive director Leslie Howle, Seattle Times columnist Jerry Large, award-winning author Vonda McIntyre and Seattle Times science-fiction reviewer Nisi Shawl. Howle will present a slide show of photos of Octavia Butler, and Hopkinson will read from “The New Moon’s Arms.” Sponsored by the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library, Elliott Bay Book Co., the Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas and the Carl Brandon Society. Free (206-386-4636 or www.spl.org).

When 53-year-old Calamity picks up a twisted gold pin, the cause of the underwear emergency, she realizes it’s a missing gift, received from Calamity’s long-lost Mumma. But grief soon descends, joining Calamity’s other troubles — many self-inflicted. Hopkinson shows how Calamity’s pridefulness hurts herself and others. She has nourished bitterness toward her first lover and her daughter’s father, Michael, since their lone, virginity-shedding sexual encounter because she didn’t make the gay youth straight.

In childhood, Calamity had a mysterious ability to find anything. It vanished when her mother disappeared — for who wants to find that her mother has been murdered by Dadda, or has run away from her cruel daughter? But with the gold pin, Calamity’s power has inconveniently returned; as her menopausal hot flashes and the pins-and-needles sensations recur, a lost dish, her childhood toys — even her father’s long-gone cashew tree orchard — reappear. Then, the power brings her a small child, Agway.

An apparent orphan, Agway has some peculiarities: webs on all fingers, a constant desire to jump in the sea, and rough patches inside his knees that stick together, Velcro-like, if he doesn’t walk bow-legged. He’s one of the Cayaba mer-folk. When she accepts the truth of the boy’s origin, Calamity attempts to return Agway to his people, with a reckless haste that could kill them both.

Like life, Hopkinson’s novel doesn’t resolve every mystery. But Hopkinson has answered the essential questions in “The New Moon’s Arms,” and she’s wise enough to know we need nothing more.