The Thread That Binds the Bones (Chapel Hollow)
by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Review by Sam Lubell
Open Road Media Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780380772537
Date: May 1993 List Price $4.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
The Thread that Binds the Bones won the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel. The sequel, The Silent Strength of Stones, was a Nebula and World Fantasy Award Finalist. Yet the book has languished out of print for far too long until Open Road Media added it to its extensive collection of rescued midlist (and former top sellers). Yes, some of this absence may be due to Hoffman being a writer's writer and frequently more successful at the short story length. Still those who like quiet, domestic fantasies, novels of love and of discovering one's magical powers, will find much to enjoy here.
The book opens with Tom Renfield, a high school janitor, hearing ghost voices and doing instinctual magic to prevent two teenagers from killing themselves. Afraid of the attention this brings, he flees to Arcadia, Oregon where he gets a job driving a taxi.
Model Laura Bolte, who moves frequently to prevent her family from finder here, receives an invitation to her brother's wedding. The two intersect when Laura needs a cab ride to finish her journey home, and he refuses to let her off in the middle of nowhere, despite warnings that “People in my family don't bring home strangers; they bring home slaves." But Tom is able to listen to Laura's underneath voice, which doesn't always align with what her regular voice says, and speaks of needing him. While they debate, something causes the cab to leave the ground and fly the rest of the way to Laura's family’s home.
In turns out that Laura is part of a group of magical families who use their powers to hide from the world, occasionally enslaving humans to be domestic workers. To prevent the family from enslaving Tom, Laura names him her guest. Then, during the brother's purification ceremony, the family spirits, called the Powers and Presences, demand that Tom and Laura get married. One of the ancestral spirits moves into Tom's body to help with the rituals and to show Tom how to use his own magic.
Most of the rest of the book is devoted to Tom's growing relationship with Laura and how they alter the family's relationship with the town. Some in the family see Tom as a dangerous force and try to use their magic against him. This forces him to further develop his own powers, which are not exactly the same as those of the family. Laura also learns more about her own powers, which she has unconsciously limited out of fear she would become as cruel as the other members of her family.
While the book does contain some conflict, as Tom teaches a family bully a lesson about transforming others and there is a grand finale that clarifies the meaning of the title, most of the book is quiet, focused on relationships and growing strength. Tom rescues a few of the family's slaves, forcing a new accommodation with the town. And they discover why Laura's family is stronger in the dark side of their gifts.
A few readers may be uncomfortable with the idea of a child being used as a sex slave, but this is described as happening in the past, before Tom's rescue, and not shown.
In addition to the novel, the ebook contains two extra stories--one about Tom as a child and one about the daughter he has with Laura. These add atmosphere but are not as spellbinding as the novel.
The Thread that Binds the Bones is perfect for those who enjoy well-written character-driven stories. It is a love story, but also a story about finding one's own strength. Little is actually explained. Readers never find out how Tom gained his powers or even how the family acquired theirs; this simply has to be accepted as the normal state for these characters. The closest comparison are the People stories of Zenna Henderson, except done as fantasy, not science fiction.
Readers who want plot-driven stories with action and a logical progression of events tying everything together should look elsewhere. Those who like stories about people with powers, who still remain people with all their virtues and flaws, will love this book. Open Road Media should be commended for giving this midlist novel another chance to attract the readership it deserves.