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A Fistful of Sky
ISBN: 0441011772
By Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Review by: Kim Wells


This was probably one of my favorite new reads this season. Nina Kiriki Hoffman's narrative explores the coming of age and coming into her powers (here magical dark powers to "curse" anything and have that curse work, if in a sometimes twisted way) of Gypsum LaZelle. Her family is an interesting blend of competition and love, negative traits that you wonder about and positive traits you long to find in your own family, and Gympsum's change from the one who can't work magic to the one who has perhaps the strongest magic in the entire family reveals the hidden tensions in family life, from those with mom to those with younger sister and brother. Most strongly, it shows us Gypsum's attempts to come to terms with herself-- sketched almost literally. Some of the characters are not "good" ones, but that only makes the story more interesting-- I don't want super-syrupy "good witch or bad witch" lines-- here, the characters are complex enough that sometimes you don't like them, but always are interested in what is going to happen to them.

The characters and situations into which they fall are all interestingly skeched, compelling, and well-written. Dialouge and setting details are well-done, and not overwrought with the fantastic tone some of these kinds of novels fall into. It doesn't read so much like fairy tale as like modern fiction that just happens to take place in a magic world. There is a touch of romance, but this aspect is not at all heavy-handed, and certainly does not end in a fairy tale movie ending (which would have turned me off on it).

One of my favorite scenes involves Gypsum trying to figure out how her ability to "curse" can be turned to good things. As Gypsum "curses" some chalk, and the siblings use this chalk to sketch on the sidewalk outside their home, and the magic of these sketches comes to life, I found myself really enjoying the idea. Gypsum finds her best expression of her "unkind" magic in baked-goods, teaming up with one of her brothers and making so many brownies that they have to find a way to dispose of the products other than her willing family. Perhaps this is just because I love stories that combine food with magic-- but that's certainly not all the story delivers. We also get an exploration of body-image from the "chubby one" in the family, as well as an encounter with inner darkness that left my husband and me debating what really happens at the end of the story.

After reading the novel, I found that I recognized something about the author's style and the narrative's fictional world, and on skimming the author's other novels, found one that I read and enjoyed several years ago called The Thread That Binds the Bones (which takes place in a similar universe to this novel). While I don't want to do a full review of the other novel (I'd have to re-read it, and I think I loaned my copy to someone and never got it back) I do recall liking it tremendously, and will add Nina Kiriki Hoffman to my list of novelists to keep an eye out for future work (in fact, I'm putting in orders for several of her other novels today). I would recommend both novels to anyone who likes magical fantasy that takes place in a real world slightly seperated from our own by magic that doesn't seem all that farfetched.

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