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Sister, Mother, Warrior by Vanessa Riley: A Book Review

Sister, Mother, Warrior
Author: Vanessa Riley
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: William Morrow
Release Date: 2022
Pages: 480
Source: Netgalley/Publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Synopsis: Acclaimed author of Island Queen Vanessa Riley brings readers a vivid, sweeping novel of the Haitian Revolution based on the true-life stories of two extraordinary women: the first Empress of Haiti, Marie-Claire Bonheur, and Gran Toya, a West African-born warrior who helped lead the rebellion that drove out the French and freed the enslaved people of Haiti

     Gran Toya: Born in West Africa, Abdaraya Toya was one of the legendary minos—women called “Dahomeyan Amazons” by the Europeans—who were specially chosen female warriors consecrated to the King of Dahomey. Betrayed by an enemy, kidnapped, and sold into slavery, Toya wound up in the French colony of Saint Domingue, where she became a force to be reckoned with on its sugar plantations: a healer and an authority figure among the enslaved. Among the motherless children she helped raise was a man who would become the revolutionary Jean-Jacques Dessalines. When the enslaved people rose up, Toya, ever the warrior, was at the forefront of the rebellion that changed the course of history.

     Marie-Claire: A free woman of color, Marie-Claire Bonheur was raised in an air of privilege and security because of her wealthy white grandfather. With a passion for charitable work, she grew up looking for ways to help those oppressed by a society steeped in racial and economic injustices. Falling in love with Jean-Jacques Dessalines, an enslaved man, was never the plan, yet their paths continued to cross and intertwine, and despite a marriage of convenience to a Frenchman, she and Dessalines had several children.

     When war breaks out on Saint Domingue, pitting the French, Spanish, and enslaved people against one another in turn, Marie-Claire and Toya finally meet, and despite their deep differences, they both play pivotal roles in the revolution that will eventually lead to full independence for Haiti and its people.

     Both an emotionally palpable love story and a detail-rich historical novel, Sister Mother Warrior tells the often-overlooked history of the most successful Black uprising in history. Riley celebrates the tremendous courage and resilience of the revolutionaries, and the formidable strength and intelligence of Toya, Marie-Claire, and the countless other women who fought for freedom. 

      My Review: Jean-Jacques Dessalines was the first Emperor of Haiti. Sister, Mother, Warrior tells the story of his women in his life. They are his adopted mother, Duchess Gran Toya, and his wife, Empress Marie-Claire. The novel tells of how these women influenced Jean-Jacques Dessalunes as he rises from a slave to an emperor. Both Duchess Gran Toya and Empress Marie-Claire are very patriotic and bond together for the good of their country. They both play a major role in Haiti’s independence.

     The reader is first introduced to Duchess Gran Toya’s story. Duchess Gran Toya was a warrior of the Dahomey tribe and the king’s wife. In order to save her king, she became enslaved. When her best friend died in bondage, she raised her son who became the future Emperor Jean-Jacques Dessalines. I really admired Duchess Gran Toya. She was fierce, bold, and courageous. Most of all, I admired her loyalty. She is very faithful to her loved ones and will do anything for them. I also liked her bond with Empress Marie-Claire. Therefore, Duchess Gran Toya was very likable because she always fought for justice.

     The other narrator in the story is Empress Marie-Claire. She is a free black woman and lives a life of privilege. She falls in love with a slave who will be the future Emperor of Haiti. The novel tells of Empress Marie-Claire's complicated romance with Emperor Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who is very ambitious and complex. I really like Empress Marie-Claire. She is a very compassionate woman. She also fights for justice and has saved countless lives. Therefore, I found her actions to be very commendable. It was also interesting to see her rise to become Empress of Haiti. Empress Marie-Claire experienced many hardships. However, she always put her country before her own sorrows.

     Even though Jean-Jacques Dessalines is a major character, I never truly grasped who he was. He was very ambitious and selfish. He did not seem to care about his wife’s hardships. Instead, he cheated on her and had other children. He also was very power-hungry. He cared more about his image than his loved ones. Therefore, Emperor Jean-Jacques Dessalines was a complicated character. I initially liked him, but over the course of the novel, I gradually began to dislike him. I can see why his wife had a complicated relationship with him and would later choose her country over him.

     Overall, this novel is about justice, war, and freedom. Aside from the main characters, I found most of the supporting characters to be bland with little depth. I also found the beginning to be slow and the ending rushed. I would have liked the novel to be longer to have a fully fleshed-out ending. Still, I found the novel to be very well-written and meticulously researched. The author superbly showed the diversity of Haiti and the different cultures of the Haitian people. She also did an excellent job in portraying Haitian politics of the era. Therefore, Mrs. Riley did a tremendous job in depicting a historical event that I knew little about. I also found the story of Duchess Gran Toya and Empress Marie-Claire to be highly illuminating because I had never heard of these women before I read this book. Therefore, despite its shortcomings, I was intrigued and fully engrossed in the novel. I enjoyed it so much that I did not want it to end! I recommend this novel for fans of Mademoiselle Revolution, Island Beneath the Sea, and Wide Sargasso Sea! Sister, Mother, Warrior is an endearing tribute to two very important women who have become cultural icons in Haiti.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


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