Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Silent Strength of Stones by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

The Silent Strength of Stones (A Chapel Hollow Novel)
Review written December 1999
This is the first novel I've ever read by Hoffman, and I must say I was pleasantly surprised. I picked it up around bedtime, and ended up staying up a bit late just to finish it. I supposed it qualifies as a juvenile fantasy novel, but it contains enough depth to be satisfying to adults, as well.
We pick up the story of Nick, a young man who lives with his father and grandfather at a lakeside resort, where he helps out running the family business of a general store. Nick's mother left them when he was quite young, and throughout the story we learn more about his ambivalent feelings towards his mother and how that abandonment has shaped his attitudes. At the beginning of the story, we are given to believe that his father is a control freak and somewhat abusive, while the grandfather is living a slow slide into senility. Through the course of the story, as Nick grows up a bit, we begin to see a little more depth and understand the character of his father more thoroughly.
Sometime during the tourist season, a strange family arrives to stay in a lakeside cabin nearby. One of Nick's favorite pastimes is spying on the amusements of the rich and idle visitors to the resort, so he begins to watch these new people, as well. He rapidly becomes acquainted with one of the girls, Willow, who is about his age, by inviting her to the upcoming Friday night dance.
Nick becomes aware rather quickly that there's something strange about this family. They seem to have the talent to make themselves invisible or pass unnoticed by most people. They also indulge in ritualistic behavior, chanting unintelligibly with their arms raised to the sky, or invoking the spirits of earth and water. He makes the acquaintance of a rather strange white wolf, who turns out to be one of the family as well - a shapeshifter named Evan.
As Nick develops relationships with several of the younger members of the family, he ends up in conflict with the adult members, putting him in danger from time to time. They are engaged in some sort of mission, and are extremely intolerant of what they perceive as his interference in both their quest and their authority over the children.
This story moves along really quickly - all of the action comes to a conclusion in a period of perhaps four or five days. Hoffman perhaps sacrifices some elements of style, characterization and description to achieve this pace, but somehow it works.
One of the things I really like about the novel is that Hoffman never takes the easy out of explaining away these people's strange actions and talents by calling them faerie or sorcerers or any of the worn-out magical terms prevalent in modern fantasy. She even manages to invent some new terms, within the basic concept of magic driven by earth, air, fire and water. Perhaps a scholar of archaic tongues might be familiar with the skilliau, which seem to be some sort of power stones, that the family are trying to acquire and bend to their uses, but it and the other items in their private tongue were all Greek to me.
This one is definitely worth reading, even if you have to pay full retail. And, as an added bonus, it's suitable for younger readers - G to PG rating.

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