Nina Kiriki Hoffman, A Fistful of Sky (Ace Books, 2002)

Gypsum LaZelle is abnormal, at least for her family. The LaZelles are magickal folk, usually coming into their powers at Transition during early to mid adolescence. Her brothers and sisters -- Opal, Jasper, Flint, and Beryl -- each completed Transition successfully, manifesting great powers. LaZelles can teleport, fly, call up lights (magickal Christmas decorations are a fun demonstration of this), project glamours, exert control over others mentally; not every LaZelle can perform every feat of magick, but most of them manifest multiple talents. But Gypsum is powerless. In addition, she's overweight, shy, and lonely.

Gypsum's family loves her even though she has no magickal ability, but she and her father (a normal man who married into the family) are definitely second class citizens, unable to defend themselves from the casual, thoughtless cruelties perpetrated by folk who can effortlessly force others to do their bidding. For example, when her glamorous mother, a local television personality, decides that Gypsum needs to lose weight, she simply takes control of Gypsum's body. Gypsum is run through a gauntlet of exercise -- her body moving against her will -- and forcibly put on a diet, literally unable to eat food of her own choosing.

And then, miraculously, Gypsum undergoes her own Transition at the ripe old age of 20. Her newfound power is amazing. Without warning, she's suddenly one of the most powerful members of the family. Unfortunately, her power is a rare one: Curse power. Even worse, she has no choice but to use her negative energies; though she's horrified at the idea of harming anyone or anything, if LaZelles don't use their powers regularly, the energy backs up within them and kills them. Gypsum has to learn to use her powers creatively, or end up harming herself or those around her.

Add to the mix an encounter with a serial rapist, an amoral Elemental brought into being through Gypsum's curses, her first boyfriend, and her controlling, overbearing Mama. Gypsum has a lot to deal with in a very short time.

A Fistful of Sky is a fantastic, enchanting novel. In Gypsum, Jasper, Uncle Tobias, Beryl, and Flint, Hoffman has created some of her most likeable characters ever. As with the magickal folk in works such as The Thread That Binds the Bones, The Silent Strength of Stones, and A Red Heart of Memories, it is clear that power is neither black nor white, simply a tool that becomes good or evil according to the whims of the wielder. Even with her Curse power, Gypsum has the choice to act maliciously and selfishly, or to try to use her powers with wisdom and to the least harm. Hoffman skillfully illustrates this point without ever becoming didactic or moralistic.

Also characteristic of Hoffman, and a longstanding if minor quibble I have with her work, is her tendency to spring climaxes, solutions, denouements like sudden traps. One scene near the very end of the book gives us an explanation of each family member's problems and issues with only a few sentences for each character. "Oh," the reader is meant to say, "that explains all of Mama's behavior through the entire story." Which, of course, it does, but it seems bumpy and rough to me; I'd prefer to learn about Mama's background issues a bit at a time, through the natural progression of the tale, rather than in one series of flashes which explain the entire LaZelle family dynamic all at once.

Neither am I enamored of the way the author creates so many non-Magickal characters who are so instantly accepting of and comfortable with the powers of her Magickal characters. While most of those who read fantasy are likely to be openminded, I'm still of the mind that should a friend of mine, for example, suddenly demonstrate the ability to fly under their own power, I'd be at least a tiny bit disconcerted. And I find it less than believable when Hoffman's regular folks fail to at least raise an eyebrow when they encounter magick.

Still, I'd have to say that this is my favorite so far by the fabulous Nina Kiriki Hoffman; a creative, warm, funny and yet uncomfortable book that I highly recommend.

[Maria Nutick]