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

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 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.


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