Midnight, the eponymous protagonist of Sister Souljah's fascinating, long-awaited novel - no doubt the first of at least two parts, as it begins in mystery and ends in a cliffhanger - is a seriously put-upon young man. A devout Sudanese Muslim, his devotion to his beautiful and talented mother and adorable little sister is absolute. He works in New York's Chinatown to help support them, and studies martial arts under a Pat Morita - esque sensei to protect them. His religion forbids drinking, drugs and premarital sex, though these vices seem part of the air he breathes. When he falls in love with Akemi, a brilliant Japanese artist who speaks not a word of English, he and his family feel that the only honorable thing for him to do is marry her. He's also, by the way, an efficient and cold - blooded killer. But it's a testament to Souljah's talent as a writer that we like and admire Midnight, even if we don't share or understand his values. Despite those unfortunate murders, he's the farthest thing from a psychopath. He loves passionately and unshakably. He is incorruptible, unfailingly respectful to his elders and hardworking in a way that's astonishing to his American - born friends.

Souljah not only brings Midnight to vibrant, complex life, but also makes her minor characters distinct and believable. We get to know the boys Midnight runs with, the brazen neighborhood girls he runs away from, the Chinese fishmonger he works for, the jovial bookseller who engages him in occasional games of chess. We identify with Midnight's patient, loving mother even as we're appalled that she lets her teenaged son get married in America, where he's not old enough to vote, drive or rent an apartment.

Souljah's first novel, The Coldest Winter Ever, is credited with starting the urban lit genre and has been selling steadily since its publication in 1999. In this second novel she continues to portray the realities of urban life. Midnight is remarkable for the empathy, insight and compassion it brings to its myriad characters and their intersecting worlds.

Arlene McKanic writes from Blair, South Carolina.

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