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A Fistful of Sky
Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Ace Books, 353 pages

A Fistful of Sky
Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Nina Kiriki Hoffman published her first solo book, The Thread That Binds the Bones, in 1993, winning the Horror Writer's Association Bram Stoker Award for best first novel. Many of her works have been finalists for Nebula and World Fantasy Awards, including novels The Silent Strength of Stones (1995) and A Red Heart of Memories (1999), her novella "Unmasking" (1992) and the novelette "Home for Christmas" (1995).

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: A Red Heart Of Memories
SF Site Review: Past the Size of Dreaming
SF Site Review: A Red Heart of Memories

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Matthew Peckham

In genre fiction, families are often either terrorized victims of chainsaw wielding maniacs, or nostalgic bubbly after-school-special caricatures wrapped in kid-safe behaviors and words. Nina Kiriki Hoffman's coming-of-age novel, A Fistful of Sky, plays the field near the latter, unfurling its mysteries in to-the-point plotting bounded by Hoffman's home-cooked narrative musings on philosophical questions of identity, sibling rivalry, power, and love. Packed with curious variations on the old "what would you do with magic powers" theme, the tale is a whimsical romp through adolescence to adulthood that mostly succeeds in drawing the reader along to the wistful end.

Gypsum LaZelle, named with her siblings after various precious stones, is a refreshingly average, ordinary female who happens to come from a family invested with uncanny talents. She's overweight, shuns makeup, sports a dumpy but practical wardrobe, and doesn't get out much. Each member of her family begins life powerless, passing through something called "transition" (a metaphor for puberty here) and gaining tremendous magical talents that can vary wildly. Gyp (as she is known) fails to transition until she turns twenty, an unusually late age. Compounding problems, her power is one of the "unkind" variety -- the power of curses. Steeped in the obstacle course mythology of sometimes smooth, sometimes rocky family relationships, the story becomes a collection of haphazard confrontations and serendipitous awakenings.

Hoffman creates a viable, internally consistent mythological framework to soundboard several sophisticated logic puzzles. Power in the LaZelle family operates like a mystical ever-charging battery pack and must be dispersed daily, lest the wielder become uncomfortable to the points of sickness. Extended charging without release can lead to death, and it turns out a relative of the family who received curse power has died, unable -- or unwilling -- to find a way to channel the power benignly. The story's surface conundrum is thus Gyp's quest to find a practical means of dispensing her curse energy without destroying herself or the people she loves in the process.

Beneath the fantastical pyrotechnics, though, this is a very personal story about the perils and pleasures of kith and kin. Power is a physical extension of will, wishes and curses function as manifestations of contracts or conflicts, culminating in a struggle to contend with the limitations and liberations of imagination. During Gyp's initial transition, she inadvertently creates a sort of doppelganger, allowing Hoffman to thrust her protagonist into a rattling confrontation between self and Other.

"She stepped closer and hugged me. Why had I thought she was tall when she stood outside the center under the orange light? She was my exact height. She kissed my cheek. Her lips were hot, almost brand-hot. She pressed her lips to mine. I struggled and tried to pull away from her, because this seemed so strange and wrong, but she was stronger than I was. She wouldn't let go. The heat of her kiss spread through me. I felt strange, uncomfortable, excited."
Gyp soon discovers that her power can be channeled through other family members to counter the negative side effects. Magic becomes a higher form of communication, a means of binding members together in a web of experiences, passions, and idiosyncratic meditations on life and death concealed in the trappings of prose that never abandons its young adult reading level.

The bulk of the tale is crammed full of wit and black comedy, preventing it from bogging down in tangential metaphysics-lite. You may recognize some similarities to Ray Bradbury (the pull quote on the book suggests that Hoffman is this generation's manifestation of the venerable grandmaster), referring specifically to Bradbury's recent From The Dust Returned about an ancient family of magical creatures and their bizarre adventures. A Fistful of Sky is Bradbury without the literary ticks and whooshing free association; the same fondness for haunting winsome prose passages and quirky characters, but with a firmer grip on plot and communicating its particulars to readers in straight sentences.

Hoffman's only notable issue is an occasional tendency to over-describe her protagonist's actions, such as the book's several baking scenes in which Gyp -- by magic or otherwise -- indulges her sweet tooth.

"I waited until Jasper and Beryl moved a little ways away, then closed my eyes and ran through a brownie recipe in my mind, all the ingredients and the steps: melt together butter and unsweetened chocolate, remove from heat and stir in sugar, vanilla, then eggs; beat all together into a warm, dark, chocolate, gooey mixture, then blend in the flour (a little less than the recipe calls for)."
And so on, and so forth (the passage continues, detailing what temperature to bake at, and for how long). We don't need to hear all of the steps, or at least not in such a "reading from the recipe card" way. This happens in a few places within the story, spots where the detail becomes superfluous and awkward. But Hoffman is a pro, and it's easy enough to slide past these odd little hiccups.

It would be interesting to see what Hoffman could do were she to take this sort of material in even deeper, darker directions. Fans of tortured syntax or post-structuralist slipstream may tire of Hoffman's unflinching directness, otherwise this is a fun bit of light-hearted caprice that isn't afraid to slip into the shadows and tackle the ugly underneath.

Copyright © 2002 Matthew Peckham

Matthew Peckham is the pen name of Matthew Peckham. He holds a Master's Degree in English Creative Writing and is currently employed by a railroad.

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