I shouldn’t like A Fistful of Sky as much as I did. It’s a weird book. Nina Kiriki Hoffman is able to bend all the tropes of fantasy novels set in the contemporary world ever so slightly. The end result is something odd, strange, but no less wonderful. Gypsum LaZelle and her family are an interesting group of people for whom magic is supposed to be a gift—except when it’s not.
The idea of a magical family reminds me somewhat of Tanya Huff’s Gale women. It’s not the same in practice, but the ways in which the two families use their magic are similar. The LaZelles don’t fight crime or battle supernatural entities. They use their magic to bake, travel, do make-up, breed plants, and festoon their house with Christmas lights. A Fistful of Sky is decidedly small-scale fantasy in this respect: the fate of the world makes nary a cameo here.
The point where I explicitly recognized I was loving the book, despite or because of its oddness, came when Beryl invites Gyp to curse her. Unbeknownst to Gyp, Beryl is mad enough at her sister to throw up a shield, and Gyp’s hasty utterance of “Ultimate Fashion Sense!” reflects back to herself. What ensues is hilarity, coupled with a certain amount of cultural awareness. Juxtaposed with the seriousness of Gyp’s situation—trying to control a curse power that has to be used and almost always turns sour—the scene is so light-hearted it should be awkward. But Hoffman makes it work. Go figure.
Every time I expected this book to do one thing, or go in one direction, it would go in another, better direction. I love it when books surprise me like that. For example, I kept waiting for Altria to become a Big Bad, for Gypsum and her family to somehow have to combine powers and work together to expel Altria from their lives. Instead, Hoffman takes an entirely different tack—one which results in a resolution somewhat bizarre and very postmodern in its open-endedness but is no more bizarre than the rest of the book.
There are several elements that didn’t do much for me. As much as I appreciated that Gyp had a supportive boyfriend, Ian took the whole “I have magical powers” revelation unrealistically well. And he has about as much personality as a wet rag. The “subdued, supportive boyfriend” is just as much of a boring stereotype as the “douchebag boyfriend” even if he is a hell of a lot more palatable. Similarly, Gyp supposedly has this friend named Claire, but we really only see her once. For the rest of the novel, Gyp is (perhaps understandably) confined to interacting with her large immediate family. While this makes sense, it limits how we see Gyp in relation to the rest of the world. She has some awkward conversations with her boss and a weird stalky rapist guy, and that’s about it.
Seriously, this book is almost-down-the-rabbithole-weird. And yet it works.
I’m not sure to whom I’d recommend A Fistful of Sky. Well, that’s not true—I’m going to recommend it to my landlady, because it reminds me a little of Charles de Lint—not in its adherence or allusions to myths and legends, but in the way Hoffman writes people doing magic as if they are perfectly ordinary. There is nothing witchy about these witches. But there is plenty of delicious subtext—Gypsum has a very complicated relationship with her mother, who herself has baggage from her own youth that has resulted in an overbearing, over-possessive streak the extent to which we only realize towards the climax. At the same time though, it’s clear Gyp still loves her mother (and vice versa). Hoffman perfectly captures the complexity of family life, that ability to both love and hate one’s siblings and parents simultaneously.
If you are looking for a straightforward save-the-cheerleader-save-the-world type narrative, then this book is not for you. It meanders through a plot more lackadaisically than Tony Stark approaches running a multi-billion—dollar company. On the other hand, if you want a restful yet also stimulating story about a family with magic and a girl who doesn’t quite fit, then A Fistful of Sky might work for you.