353 pp .
Nina Kiriki Hoffman is one of my favorite authors. I’m a huge fan of both the books set in the universe of The Thread that Binds the Bones and the Matt Black stories. Hoffman’s style of writing is quirky and honest, and deals with the complexities of human and family relationships, with an added dose of the supernatural and mystical. Her magical systems are generally unique–instead of borrowing from Western or Eastern magic systems or folklore, she makes things up from the beginning, creating new mythologies on the fly. Her magical families (such as the Locke, Keye and Bolte families of Thread) combine the power and insularism of Zenna Henderson’s People with a touch of Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life.”
A Fistful of Sky follows a new “magical family” with the LaZelles who have a significantly different culture than the magical families in The Thread That Binds the Bones. They are insular in that they are very secretive, and less insular as they have a requirement of marrying “normal” people who do not have their gifts. This occasionally causes a certain amount of angst because occasionally a child is born who doesn’t go through “transition sickness” which means they do not acquire powers. Our Heroine Gypsum LaZelle is still living with her family while going to college. She doesn’t quite have a direction in life, aside from being an expert cook and baker, and is used to being considered a slight disappointment by her news anchor mother. Gypsum thinks that she’s one of the ones who isn’t going to acquire any powers because she’s well past the usual age limit.
Of course, she is very much mistaken.
Gypsum thinks she is just having a very bad cold or the flu when she comes down with transition sickness. Her family is away, so the mother of a friend stays with her, and nurses her through the illness. When Gypsum wakes up she isn’t aware that something has happened for quite some time. Only a very strange encounter at the school she works at while taking classes and the subsequent rescue by one of her brothers tips anyone off that something has happened, and that Gypsum has “transitioned.”
Small problem: it turns out that Gypsum has received the power of curses. A power that tends to cause a lot of grief, and which if not used will eventually kill the person with that power. Needless to say, this is a very bad thing. Gypsum is at first reluctant, but is encouraged to use her powers. One of Gypsum’s attempts results in the accidental “creation” of an entity who calls herself Altria. This results in a lot of chaos and Interesting Times as Altria alternately assists and plays tricks on Gypsum and her family members.
An interesting aspect of the plot is that there’s a point where various family members actively ask Gypsum to curse them. The reasoning that leads up to this is essentially “well, we did x to Gypsum, so it’s okay if she does y to us.” Another aspect of the story relates to self-esteem and the helicopter parenting of Gypsum’s mother. Gypsum is overweight and this greatly affects her relationship to her perfectionist mother (due to extremely severe abuse that puts Gypsum in the hospital.) The themes of complex family relationships and dysfunction are a big part of the story line, but there’s never a point where it sounds like a soap opera or the movie of the week.
This was a great story, and I highly recommend it.