Fistful of Sky by
Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Ace Books Hardcover; ISBN 0441009751 PubDate Nov' 02
Review by Daniel P. Dern
368 pages List Price $23.95
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With the same uncanny timing and skill that kept me from being aware of John Crowley's Engine Summer, Patricia McKillip's Riddle of Stars trilogy, Alan Moore's Miracleman comic, or Babylon 5, until several years after they first appeared/started, I managed to miss Nina Kiriki Hoffman's fiction (possibly give or take stories in F&SF) until about three years ago, when a friend handed me a copy of her second novel, The Silent Strength Of Stones (a Nebula and World Fantasy awards finalist), which I found so compelling I immediately re-read it twice.
Silent Strength, like several of her other novels (The Thread That Bind The Bones, A Red Heart Of Memories, Past The Heart Of Dreaming), take place in a more-or-less common universe, people-wise, sort of a cross between Zenna Henderson's The People and Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover, in that there's generations-old families of people with all sorts of magical powers, plus random "mundanes" ("Muggles," in Harry Potter lingo) who also demonstrate magical abilities and affinities.
A Fistful Of Sky doesn't involve any of Hoffman's previous novels' characters, but, like them, it's chockfull of magic, here, centered around the LaZelle family, who lives in Southern California, who as a rule have magical powers which typically manifest somewhere during puberty/ adolescence; in particular, we follow the tale, trials and challenges of Gypsum, a.k.a. "Gyp" (the LaZelles are named after semi-precious stones, or at least minerals). As the book starts, Gyp, at age 21, is trying to accept that, like her father, she is the odd/ugly ducking of the family, with no powers.
In Fistful, arguably, Hoffman has reversed the subtext of Buffy, where (at least while the Scooby gang was in high school), the angst and pain of growing up and being in high school was externalized by reality, where your guidance counselor might actually be a hell-spawned demon, and your gym companions turn into monsters, and making careless wishes often led to big, big troubles.
Instead, Hoffman's characters' powers impinge on trying to have and live one's life, in all manner of ways, ranging from leaving one with a uglified face for a few days, to filling the back yard with chocolate chip cookies... and trying to find ways to deal with far too much magic without unnecessarily blowing their cover to the mundanes (which in some cases they do). There's also a fair amount of exploration of the "protocols of having and using magic with/to family members," taking sibling rivalry and feuds to new levels.
Hoffman writes well about magic amidst our otherwise normal contemporary world, and has come up with lots of different, new flavors of magic (although sometimes it seems like there's too many variations/paradigms within a given book, like just MZ Bradley often did in her Darkover series).
I still like Silent Strength Of Stones best of all Hoffman's books so far, but they're all worth reading, and this one's no exception. My main disappointment is that it wasn't a continuation of the tales of the characters from the previous four novels, drat! -- I still want to know how a lot of those sub-plots and characters have worked out. Meanwhile, recommended without hesitation.