Homely, Solid, Magical: Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s Permeable Borders

There’s something deeply lovable about Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s work. This new collection draws together stories from between 1993 and 2008. It contains stories published in magazines and anthologies I have read and magazines and anthologies I hadn’t, so it was a mix of old and new for me. I loved all of it.

What Hoffman does better than anyone else is to write about strange people with magical abilities in a really grounded way. Her details always work. The emotions are always in the right place. Her magic is rooted in her landscape, so that it seems natural and believable and right. It’s something more than real, a fantastical blossom growing out of black dirt you can rub between your fingers. She’s good at families and friendships and people who have been hurt starting to reach out again. All her stories are different, but they all connect with these themes. She is also very good at fashioning a short story so that it draws you in at exactly the right pace and leaves you completely satisfied. There’s not a single dud in Permeable Borders, every story felt like a high point. Usually it takes me a while to get through a short story collection, but this was such a deeply enjoyable read that I raced through it.

I generally have huge problems with real world stories with magic for reasons that aren’t easy to articulate and which have to do with this landscape thing. They seldom feel right to me—European mythology in a North American context breaks my suspension of disbelief. It jars me. And any magic in the modern world tends to make me feel “Well, am I stupid or what that I missed this?” I know this is a personal quirk and many people love this stuff. But alone of everything that I can think of Hoffman never does this, her magic feels grounded, it makes sense that I wouldn’t have noticed it. I can’t get enough of it. She’s coming at this stuff from a really different direction, the Ray Bradbury Zenna Henderson direction, not the Tolkien direction. She’s interested in the implications of her magic, but the emotional implications.

I was most excited here by the section of stories called “Finding Each Other,” which consists of seven stories that connect to the Haunted House books (post). I’d only read one of them before. They’re great. They mess up possible chronological re-readings of the series even more than it was messed up already. I don’t care.

My very favourite story here… no. Among my favourite stories here, in this collection with no low points, are the story about the grandmother with the extra granddaughter who shows up speaking a language nobody else can understand, and the story about the college age girl who can talk to ghosts and who meets a serial killer on the beach. They are all full of great characters and memorable images and seamless magic.

If you know you like Hoffman, rush to buy this already. If you’re not sure, try the short story Ghost Hedgehog that Tor.com ran here last November. It’s not in the collection, but it will give you a good feel for what you’re going to get.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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