It’s late autumn here in New England. The last lingering tattered leaves have crashed and burned to the ground, and even the fiery rites of Halloween and Guy Fawkes are behind us. We’re left with a shrinking hoard of days burning shorter and shorter, like a few handfuls of candle stubs. With the darkness gathering around us, it is now the season for telling tales about the things that live in shadow.
Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s new book Spirits That Walk In Shadow is, as the title suggests, a story about beings that live in the dark. One of these is a mysterious entity which threatens the life of Kim Calloway, the young protagonist who is experiencing her first semester of college. The other is Kim herself, who lives within the shadow of a dark depression which threatens to swallow her completely.
In the hands of a less talented writer, such a plotline might offer a one-dimensional snapshot of adolescent angst. In the graceful hands of Nina Kiriki Hoffman, however, the story becomes a three-dimensional portrait which exploits all the power of chiaroscuro.
Chiaroscuro, the Italian word for “light-dark” is the technique of playing light and shadow against one another in order to create form, and the term is doubly apt in describing this novel. Hoffman has an artist’s touch for allowing characters to reveal themselves gradually through the physical and vocal expression of their own light and dark aspects. In addition, the reader is allowed to experience Kim’s perspective as a unique visual artist, painting pictures of the world through a synesthetic sense which mixes emotions with color, words with images, all woven through with sparks and shadows.
From the first few paragraphs of the prologue in which Kim explains how she uses her art to convey what she sees and feels, the reader is caught up in Kim’s secret language of color and form:
When I was small, my thoughts and feelings were all visual. The taste of chocolate might be a smear of deep, warm yellow, with gold sparkles. Hot water was a warm, blue blanket, but really hot water had prickles and spikes like shiny silver needles, and cold water, the kind that froze your hand when you dipped into it, looked like sheets of gray ice with bright light shining through.Images came all the time. Sometimes the pictures were jumpy, like a slide show, images flashing fast, overlapping; sometimes smooth and fluid, like Chinese calligraphy.
One day after I had learned to read, I had a mental click. I was wandering the playground during recess. I watched kids on swings, scraps of color arcing up and down against the chill blue sky, and I thought, I wonder if I could think about this in words.
Kim’s struggle to express herself creatively becomes a metaphor for the struggle to express herself emotionally, to make connections with other people. By the end of the prologue we learn that this need to connect and to communicate possesses life-or-death significance, for some emotional trauma has caused the deep depression Kim is experiencing, and as a result she has lost her artistic ability. The rest of the story follows Kim’s desperate search to find a means for dealing with her depression so that she can recover her “lost language and find her way out of the dark well into which she has fallen.”
The story becomes more complex still as the next chapter switches to the perspective of Jaimie Locke, Kim’s freshman college roommate. (Jaimie Locke also appeared in Hoffman’s first novel, The Thread That Binds the Bones, winner of a Bram Stoker Award.) While Kim is a socially awkward loner inclined to obsessive over-planning, Jaimie comes from a clan of eccentric magic users whose moral alignment is reminiscent of the Slytherins in the Harry Potter series. Though Jaimie herself is something of a delinquent who has rarely, if ever, felt inclined to help out another human being, let alone concerned herself with the social rules, she and Kim form a prickly friendship in order to learn more about each other’s worlds.
Pairing up such binary opposites as Kim and Jaimie might come across as contrived and flat, but they’re not, for though both Kim and Jaimie possess unusual talents — Kim has a stunning artistic gift, and Jaimie has the magic ability to manipulate the air — neither of them really understands the how or why of controlling her wild talent. Magic becomes the metaphor for creativity, for the ability to transform nothing into something, and for the knowledge that it is only by learning control over one’s self that the firestorm of human emotions can be controlled from consuming everything in its path.
Nina Kiriki Hoffman has written over two hundred short stories, many of them included in such fantasy anthologies as The Green Man and The Faery Reel. Yet Spirits That Walk In Shadow, while it stands alone as a novel, is part of a loosely connected series of novels which combines elements of dark fantasy, urban fantasy, and horror. Spirits That Walk In Shadow appears to be the strongest individual novel yet, and its use of images of light and dark reminded me of Jane Yolen’s Sister Light, Sister Dark, but even more of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. Indeed, the very name “Kim Calloway” seems to contain echoes of the names of both the light and dark characters in Bradbury’s stories, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade. As in Bradbury’s story, the splitting of the light and dark characters only more strongly suggests that each of us possesses our light and dark aspects, and that each of these twin aspects is vital to imagination, creativity, and even the most basic sense of self-preservation.
Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s Spirits That Walk In Shadow is an autumn tale which weaves the bright threads of fantasy together with the darker threads of psychological metaphor, and as such is a complex multi-textured story which should prove entertaining and thought-provoking to both young adult and older readers.