DarkEcho Horror
deccoclock by Rick Berry
Book Review

A Fistful of Sky
Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Ace/ 368p/ $23.95
ISBN 0965943372
June 2002 Cover

Nina Kiriki Hoffman started her novel-writing career with horror. Her first novel, The Thread That Binds the Bones, won a Bram Stoker, and most of her early short stories were also horror. But she's drifted more and more toward non-dark fantasy. In A Red Heart of Memories (1999) (read review) there were dark secrets, magic, witchcraft, a ghost, and a haunted house, but rather than creating an atmosphere of fear she created comfort and reassurance. Her disruption of the "normal" world brought solace instead of terror. With its sequel, Past the Size of Dreaming (2002) (read review) the characters had to confront a growing force of Evil, but, again the book had whimsy and warmth but no scares. Her latest, A Fistful of Sky, may not be classified as dark, either, but there is an edgy sense of danger and impending disaster throughout. There's a great deal of self-discovery and relationship-exploration and, ultimately, the basic fears confronted involve something very frightening: those who love you, who protect you, who want only the best for you may still cause a great deal of pain. Pain is pain, even if inflicted in the name of Good rather than Evil.

The LaZelles are a magical family that lives in Southern California. Members "transition" at some point during adolescence and gain their supernatural powers. Or rather that's how it works for most LaZelles. Since they marry only (carefully selected) normal people, there's always a slight genetic chance that a few might never make the transition. But of the five LaZelle siblings, four -- Opal, Jasper, Beryl, and Flint -- gain their special gifts and talents; only middle daughter Gypsum does not. Gyp is a disappointment to her mother in other ways, too: she's overweight, lacks a dynamic personality, and is rather plain. Not to mention you can't fight back on an equal basis when all your siblings make you the brunt of magical pranks. Not that Gyp's not well-loved, she is, and she loves her family just as much. She makes her own quiet, gentle place in the family and doesn't expect a great deal out of life.

Then, at the dangerously advanced age of 20 (evidently getting magic is something like getting chicken pox -- the older the person the higher the likelihood of complications), she transitions. Her power, however, is a dark one -- the power of curses. She must curse or it will kill her -- and it's very difficult to curse without hurting someone or even something.

But what exactly is a curse? And what's not? What Gyp feels is a curse may not be so bad to others. What others dread, Gyp may not fear at all. Take "Ultimate Fashion Sense" for instance -- you are compelled to makeover everything and everyone including yourself. Can you just curse something like a grapefruit without dire consequence? Not exactly. It grows to be a man-eater that fills the kitchen. How about an almost-dead tree? Be careful which end you start with. Gyp's Aunt Hermina's computer gets cursed -- it's not a optimal outcome.

There's a great deal of humor and whimsy as Gyp and her family learn to deal with the unkind magic, but Hoffman makes sure that the reader and her characters understand that there's real danger in the situation, too. Of course, there's a lot of real danger in growing up, and Gypsum is forced to do a lot of it rapidly. Growing up also creates a series of crises for a even a mundane family and there's always a very good chance that ties will be irreparably broken. In a family of spellcasters, things are even more complicated.

There are also some interesting twists provided by an indescribable non-human creature, Altria, who is both a comfort and a menace. The scattering of very important humans in the story -- Gyp's father, her childhood-to-adult friend and her mother, her potential beau -- are not diminished simply because they are not magical, but hold their own as complete characters as well.

Hoffman herself is thrice blessed with writing magic: Few bring such poetry to prose or make words flow with so much grace. Her characters -- even when dealing with more than a dozen characters -- glow with life and distinction. She has the gift of authentically touching the heart without resorting to cheap sentiment or emotional tricks.

What's not to like? Hoffman's tendency to resolve things with a sort of supernatural cognitive psychotherapy may bother some readers. Others will have no problems with it. It's difficult to believe that most adult American males will appreciate the book. But then there's a great deal in fantasy that they don't appreciate, just as many women don't see what appeals to men a lot of military SF. (Go ahead, take that as a dare, guys. Prove me wrong! I'll read a "Starfist" book.)

Oh yeah, and the cover -- it's lovely: a slender girl with long hair on a beach. She's wearing a skirt. I can handle the skirt, although Gyp only wears dresses unless hit with Ultimate Fashion Sense. But the long hair -- Gypsum definitely has short hair, although its styling improves in the course of the novel -- is a bit troublesome. Then there's the slender part. Okay, she's not anorexic or anything, but I don't think anyone would consider her overweight. And Gyp's weight is very important in the book. Does Ace really think it would sell fewer books if an equally lovely young woman -- but closer to the heroine in looks -- were on the cover? These things DO matter to the many adolescent girls who, with any luck, will read this book and learn its lessons. Nina Kiriki Hoffman can't be blamed for the cover or for gender differences or even readers who don't care for therapy. I just hope I can keep finding excuses to review her non-horror novels here. Otherwise I'll resort to books like her I Was a Sixth-Grade Zombie for R.L. Stine's Ghosts of Fear Street series. Which, you know, you might really like... ("Waves of Fear," Cemetery Dance #42)

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