To begin, and to give you a sense of orientation: Nina Kiriki Hoffman is a genius. Her novel The Silent Strength of Stones is one of our greatest contemporary fantasy novels, easily on par with Emma Bull's The War for the Oaks, Charles de Lint's Memory and Dream, and Megan Lindholm's Wizard of the Pigeons (all essential reading for readers interested in what might reasonably be called North American Magical Realism). In recent years Hoffman has turned her attention to a loosely connected cycle of stories and novels that are largely about a likeable, complicated character, a witch named Edmund (whom I first encountered in Hoffman's outstanding story "Sourheart"). A Stir of Bones is the newest work in this cycle, though it is the earliest in terms of chronology.
First, some background. Edmund is the central figure of Hoffman's 1999 novel A Red Heart of Memories, in which he joins another of Hoffman's recurring characters, Matt Black, an emotionally-damaged wanderer with the ability to talk to inanimate objects (readers might remember Matt from "Home for Christmas," one of the best fantasy stories ever written about the holidays). The two explore their pasts, revisiting old haunts, and discovering long-hidden secrets. They also encounter Edmund's childhood friend Suki (whom he knew, long ago, by the name Susan), a fascinating, psychologically wounded character. Suki, now a business woman, has all but forgotten the magical experiences of her teenage years, during which she, Edmund, and some of their other friends befriended a ghost in a haunted house, and together shared a life-altering, transforming experience. That particular repression is just the tip of her emotional iceberg, however -- and ice is an apt image, since Suki's reaction to trauma or stress is to grow cold and emotionless, and cover herself in the psychological armor of detachment. These are coping mechanisms, we are told, that she learned early in life, and when we first encounter Suki she demonstrates a lack of affect so extreme as to approach borderline personality disorder, allowing herself no emotional attachments at all.
Edmund's and Suki's stories go on in Past the Size of Dreaming, in which Edmund continues his quest to find the rest of his friends, who all have problems of their own -- troubles in the present, and troubles that pursued them from the past. By the novel's end there is a measure of healing, and of fellowship, but Hoffman wisely refuses the false consolation of simplistic happy endings.
And so to the matter at hand. Hoffman's newest work, A Stir of Bones, is written with a young-adult audience in mind. In practical terms, that means it's a bit shorter than the other books in the cycle, and the characters are teenagers. This is a prequel to A Red Heart of Memories, but while Edmund is present for much of the novel, he is not the central figure this time. The protagonist is, instead, Susan (who is many years from re-naming and re-creating herself as the cold, emotionally-deadened Suki). Readers who have met Susan in the previous books will likely experience a sensation of dread from the first sentence on, as they will already have some idea of how bad things are for Susan, and how bad they're going to get. The central conflict of this novel concerns Susan's efforts to meet the impossible ideal that her father demands -- to be, in effect, the perfect teenage daughter. Hoffman's villains are nearly always driven by complicated engines of motive, and few things in her world can be reduced to a monochrome dichotomy of right and wrong, but Susan's father is one of the most unambiguous, unsympathetic characters I've found in Hoffman's fiction. The complications and shades of gray here come not so much from his character as from Susan's relationship with him. Despite his horrifying acts of emotional blackmail and all-too-calculated violent tendencies, he is her father, and she does love him.
The main action of this book involves Susan's gradually developing relationships with Edmund and his other friends (the outspoken Deirdre and the kind, musically-gifted Julio) -- relationships she must enjoy in secret, because her father does not approve of unsupervised social activities, preferring Susan to spend all her time either in study or on personal grooming. The friends secretly meet in a local haunted house, where they discover the teenage ghost, Nathan, who plays an important role in the other two books. Hoffman has great fun with these scenes in the haunted house, as Susan develops a special, magical rapport with Nathan and the (somewhat self-aware) House. These first human (and inhuman) relationships teach Susan things about herself that she never realized, and help her to better cope with the extraordinary difficulties and fears she faces every day at home. The elements of cautious hope for Susan's future that emerge in this narrative are actually painful to read in light of the chronologically later books, as we know that any real hope for resolution and closure is many years away.
Hoffman's writing is clear-eyed, deft, and compassionate. She deals with the complexities of child abuse admirably, without offering pat answers or unrealistic resolutions. If A Stir of Bones is not as strong a novel as its chronological sequel A Red Heart of Memories, that is more a testament to the latter's excellence than the former's flaws. Having previously read the other books in the cycle, it's difficult for me to say how well A Stir of Bones stands alone, but I suspect it is more satisfying within the greater context of the series, and I encourage readers to read these books in the order in which they were published. As a whole they comprise one of the most honest, charming, and moving story-cycles in modern fantasy.
Copyright © 2003 Tim Pratt
Tim Pratt reviews fiction and poetry for Locus, Star*Line, Strange Horizons, and other publications. His previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. To contact him, email email@example.com.
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