I read Spirits that Walk in Shadow for Wyrd and Wonder and then ran out of time to write up my thoughts and post them. And then got distracted. For a whole month. But hey, better late than never, eh?
This is the third Chapel Hollow book, a series of books that are only very loosely connected and can easily be read as stand-alone stories. The thread that runs through them is the group of magical families whose customs and practices are mostly kept secret from we ordinary folk. Magic is often used by these families to coerce and enslave, and many of Hoffman’s characters are amoral, which has been the thing that keeps bringing me back to her books. As with any advantage, the people in these stories use magic for good and bad depending on their wants and needs. What fascinates me in Hoffman’s world is that magic is so often abused and that the question of consent arises again and again. It’s almost as if these families – the Lockes, the Keyes, the Boltes and the Seales – aren’t quite human and have yet to acknowledge our rules.
That said, this is the most hopeful of the Chapel Hollow books. Jaimie Locke is putting some space between her and her complicated (to say the least!!) family by going to college. She is one of the young people who is suffering from the fallout of an event in The Thread that Binds the Bones; who was being taught dark magic by a family member. This has left her with large gaps in her magical education and in need of healing. (I realise this all sounds quite ominous, but Hoffman’s touch is light and none of this is made into a big deal). So, in a sense, Jaimie is escaping to college, but she’s also looking to learn how the world works outside of the rarefied bubble she’s grown up in. She’s open and curious, and her instincts are more kind than cruel.
Which is handy because Kim Calloway needs all the help she can get. She too is escaping to college, hoping to put behind her a strange pattern of depression that has hijacked her last year at High School. She’s an artist who has lost the will to paint, a synesthete whose “mental picture side” has faded almost to nothing. She gets struck, suddenly and without apparent reason, by such complete and utter despair that she can barely function.
Kim’s synaesthesia is written so perfectly that I’d wager Hoffman must experience it herself. As someone who also ‘sees’ tastes and smells, and numbers, letters and words as colours (with an emotional undertone), I was entranced by Hoffman’s pinpoint accurate description of my own experience. Anyhow, this slightly less common way of looking at the world means that Kim is unusually open to magic and when she finds herself sharing a room with can’t-keep-a-secret-to-save-her-soul Jaimie she quickly learns that things are far stranger than she could have imagined.
The story rips along at a rollicking pace, capturing those breathless first few days at college, completely independent from home and family. The chapters alternate between Kim and Jaimie’s perspectives, and if they have something far bigger to overcome than just finding their way around and registering for classes, Hoffman doesn’t skimp on the everyday details. Finding a place to sit in the dining hall, collecting student ID cards, going to orientation, meeting new people and making new friends is given as much page space as “trelling” for emotional-vampire creatures, meeting shape-changing household gods, drawing inner calm from the trees and conjuring clothing from the air. And Hoffman makes it all work together beautifully.
Now that I’ve read them, I wonder if the Chapel Hollow books were the best place to start with Nina Kiriki Hoffman. They were some of her first published books and I’ve enjoyed them especially the magic and the way it’s been incorporated into the mundane world (even The Silent Strength of Stones was good, despite the main character Nick and a slightly uneven storyline), but I also feel that by entering Hoffman’s world here I’ve been on the backfoot the whole time. Maybe that’s just the way her writing will always make me feel, I don’t know. I’m keen to try something else by her, however, and Jo Walton’s mention of her “Haunted House” books here has piqued my interest, so that’s where I plan to poke about next.