Fri
Mar 21 2014 9:00am

Magic and Dormrooms: Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s Spirits That Walk in Shadow

Spirits That Walk in Shadow Nina Kiriki Hoffman I’ve talked about Nina Kiriki Hoffman before, and how her strength is blending magic with very real things, so that both the real things and the magic resonate and make something simultaneously magical and homely and solid. In general I’m not a great fan of fantasy set in the real world because it always seems kind of fake and unbelievable—and also as if the writer thinks I’m stupid. The whole genre of urban fantasy tends to not work for me. Magic has to be really integrated into the world for me to believe it, and believe that I could have overlooked it if it was there. There are some writers who do it—Megan Lindholm, Terri Windling, Alan Garner, and most of all Nina Kiriki Hoffman.

Spirits That Walk in Shadow is a book about two different girls going to college and becoming roommates. It’s about all the every day practical details of sharing a room, registering for classes, hiding your household gods, and dealing with entities that feed on misery.

Kim is an ordinary girl except for the way she can see pictures in her head and has learned to get them down on paper. Jaimie isn’t ordinary in any way—she might be an alien (like Zenna Henderson’s People) but she’s certainly part of a family with magic, traditions, religion, and real and present gods, one of whom she has brought with her to college. Kim is very organized and would be getting through her routine and signing up for classes with no problem except for the terrible crushing load of guilt and misery she’s carrying around. It’s the legacy of a broken friendship, but Jaimie’s magic can determine that it’s something more than that, something external is causing Kim’s misery attacks.

This the kind of book that a mainstream reader could see in terms of allegory. Kim and Jaimie have very different histories, but they share a dormroom and find ways of bonding and bring friends and save each other, just like thousands of real college students. Jaimie’s magic and Kim’s emotional predator give the book a plot, and make it something wider and wilder, but this really is a story of the first few days in college, with all of that stuff also going on.

Like most of Hoffman, there is a family, but unlike most of Hoffman the family isn’t the focus in this book. We see Jaimie’s father and plenty of her cousins, and Kim’s parents too, but they’re peripheral. Jamie’s family helps, but Kim helps them too. Kim and Jaimie solve their own problems, and largely save themselves. This is good. It’s a book that covers only a few days—with an epilogue six months later—so it’s not exactly about growing up. but it’s about young people beginning to be independent. It captures that well.

On the magic—if the emotion-sucking viri existed, I wouldn’t notice them because they’re not really noticeable. They are the “spirits” of the title, though they are very definitely and solidly embodied. If Jaimie’s family’s magic was real, and if I noticed, they’d wipe my mind, which is horribly unethical, but they are not shown as caring all that much about ethics, nor is this unproblematic in the text. Jaimie has an amazing carelessness about this—she’s been given a list of things not to talk about, and at one point she hands it to Kim, who promptly asks her what all those things are. But this is all of a piece with the way her family behave—constantly turning each other into things. It’s awful to contemplate them having that much power and being that petty with it. Not unrealistic, just horrible.

Like most of Hoffman, once you start reading don’t expect to stop until you’ve finished it. I’ve read this twice now, at breakneck pace both times. She has that ability to grab hard and keep drawing you on. And the details are wonderful, Kim petting the god the others are afraid of, Jamie getting calm from redwood needles, Zilla improvising clothes from air, food fights in the cafeteria.

I wouldn’t recommend this as the best place to start Hoffman—that would be the Haunted House books. But if you know you like Hoffman this is a fast-paced fun totally absorbing read with everything she does so well.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published three poetry collections and nine novels, including the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. She has just published a collection of her Tor.com posts, What Makes This Book So Great. She has a new novel My Real Children coming out in May. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here irregularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

6 comments
Clarentine
1. Clarentine
Ah, now I know why that spirit wrapped around the neck of the girl on the cover of this book reminded me of something: when I went to look the book up on ABEBooks.com, the entry I found said it was a part of the Chapel Hollow series, and that spirit (or something awfully similar) makes an appearance in The Thread that Binds the Bones. Having made the connection, I bought the book on the spot. I will read *anything* in that series, I think because I want to know what happens to the characters, every one of whom walks out of the books fully fleshed and real. Thanks, Jo, for keeping Ms. Hoffman's name on our radar.
Clarentine
2. Maria M.
I have enjoyed all Nina Kiriki Hoffman's books, but my favourite by far is The Thread That Binds the Bones. I have the impression that the Jaimie comes from that same family, though of course a lot of time has passed in between the writing of these books. Would really like to know what has become of Tom and the others ...

Recently I bought a short story by NKH on Amazon, but I don't really like buying such very short texts, even by her. She should offer collections of her older work, or at least bundles of three to five stories.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
Maria: She has a collection, Permeable Bodies, which is brilliant and which I recommend. I don't much like buying individual stories either.

I have read The Thread that Binds the Bones but not for ages and ages and I don't remember it, as much be apparent. Does it connect also with Silent Strength of Stones? What order do they come in?
mark tranter
4. antiloquax
Hi Jo, thanks for this article. I am currently reading SFF written by female authors (not a political correctness thing - a blog I read made me realise that my unintentional bias was making me miss out on some great fiction). I am blogging about it here. After I read (and loved) Among Others, I read your "Where do I start with that?" blog posts. Quite a few of the books you mentioned have gone straight onto my my tbr list. I am planning to read a Hoffman soon; it will probably be The Silent Strength of Stones or A Fistful of Sky.
Clarentine
5. LadyGrey
The Thread That Binds the Bones is the first book to deal with the Locke/Keye/Bolte etc families, so strictly speaking, The Silent Strength of Stones and Spirits That Walk In Shadow are sequels or companion novels. However, I read SSS before I read the other two, and they're all three reasonably self-contained--I was able to follow SSS's plot with no trouble, and I don't recall any specific characters crossing over from one book to another or referring to events in other books that are necessary to the plot of the current. SSS and STWiS seem to be more teen/YA oriented than TTBtB, which reminded me slightly of Crowley's Little, Big--man finds crazy magic family and assimilates.

On a side note, I hope and hope for the day when we find out that the LaZelles of Fistful of Sky and Fall of Light are a long-lost branch of that Family, and hijinks ensue.
Clarentine
6. Alisonmh
Jamie does indeed appear in Thread. She is hiding in exile with her sister Annis, Annis's lover, and their baby Rupert.

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