Not so urban fantasy: Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s The Silent Strength of Stones

Nina Kiriki Hoffman is one of those writers who should be much better known. She is the spiritual heir of Zenna Henderson, and if you loved the People stories you will also love The Silent Strength of Stones. They do the same kinds of the same things with magic and family, things very few other people are doing. Hoffman’s work is darker, and in some ways she prefigures the current wave of urban fantasy, though her work doesn’t at all have the kind of noir feel that characterizes that genre.

In The Silent Strength of Stones, Nick’s mother ran away from her magic-using family because they were smothering her, and later ran away from Nick for fear she was smothering him. Nick’s seventeen, and he’s been living with his harsh uncompromising father who expects him to work all the time. He meets Willow and Evan, a brother and sister who seem surprised he can see them, because ordinary people aren’t supposed to be able to see them when they have their magic shields up.

The edition of this I own isn’t labelled as a children’s book, but that’s what it is. The problems go down a little too easily once they’re confronted. I’d have loved this when I was twelve. There’s enough in it that’s really unusual to make it remain interesting—notably that Nick’s primary connection isn’t with the beautiful girl Willow but with her brother Evan who prefers to present as a wolf. It’s not a romance, though there are some elements of teen romance in it, it’s the story of friendship and growing up and making your own decisions. This makes it a curiously old-fashioned book even as a YA, where romance and emotional issues are central these days, but provides much of the charm.

The Silent Strength of Stones is an early book (1995) and Hoffman has done better with the same kind of themes since, notably, in A Fistful of Sky. Her great strengths are making magic seem entirely real within the context of the story, and anchoring everything with the kind of little details that make a world rock solid. Here the lake with its summer visitors, Nick’s social awkwardness around rich kids his own age, and the magical stones he can find are all treated at the same level of reality. It also gets points for having a character aware that there are werewolves in films and books—Nick has seen werewolf movies and doesn’t want to watch Evan change in case it’s gross, and also comments, “How can you put a fairytale creature in a convenience store?” This is a refreshing change when so many fictional characters encountering this sort of thing act as if nobody ever heard of anything like it.

Things may resolve a little too easily, but the book has a sweetness that entirely makes up for it.

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