Fall of Light by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

February 9, 2010

Penguin Ace, 2008

Finished: Feb 8, 2010

Source: book blog

Genre: magical realist chick lit, with a little more magic and a little less realist than the usual

On the Scales: lightweight, pulls punches

One way or another I get around to reading everything Nina Kiriki Hoffman writes–except the media tie-ins and her early pulps.  The hardcovers with the distinctive garden-wall-brick shape and the drifty photoshop feminist fantasy chick-lit covers which would usually annoy me?  I read them all.  Eventually.  I’m never in a hurry because a novel by Nina Kiriki Hoffman is a bittersweet pleasure.  I have to forget what it was like reading the last before I can start the next.

When I was about halfway through Fall of Light I looked at the author biography on the back flap.  All the same information was there–Eugene Oregon, the cats, the mannequin–but now it also says that she has been writing fantasy for 20 years and “Her works have been finalists for the Nebula, World Fantasy, Mythopoeic, Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, and Endeavour awards.”  Suddenly everything made sense.

Let me tell you why they won’t give the lady her Nebula.

A Hoffman novel starts splendidly.  An interesting setting, a sympathetic main character, a great premise.  You know right away that there’s going to be a lot of magic and it’s going to play a big part in the plot.  Passages of economical, vivid description make you confident you’re not going to be wincing at her writing.  You’re in good hands.  Pretty soon something happens, described in the same succinct style, that is mundane and yet strangely sexy.  And you know you’re in really good hands.

In this first stage (which lasts for maybe a third of the book) your heart soars.  Finally, a top-notch piece of light fiction!  The kind you only come across a couple of times each year.  The kind you’ll go to sleep reading, then reach for first thing in the morning with a feeling that it’s going to be a good day JUST BECAUSE you have this book to read.  If you are one of the people who has the power to decide who gets World Fantasy Awards and Nebulas, I imagine you would put it on your mental list: “This is the one.  Wow.  There’s no one like Nina.”

Fall of Light opens with makeup artist Opal LaZelle applying a monster face to a sleepy seven-plus-foot actor named Corvus Weather (the only wince-worthy thing about Hoffman: her names).  You get all the technical details of the process, plus some lively back-and-forth with the other artists and actors in the trailer, as Opal discreetly uses her magic to tweak the work along.  The characters are introduced, the stage is set.

Corvus, typecast for monsters because of his height, is mild and easygoing.  Opal has worked with him before.  She’s in love with him.  This is normal for Opal; part of her transforming makeup magic is to fall in love with her client, no matter how unpleasant.  The non-normal part about Corvus is that Opal doesn’t fall out of love with him between shoots.  But she doesn’t plan on doing anything about it.  Responsible Opal has already tried continuing an on-set relationship and been burnt.  She doesn’t make that kind of mistake twice.

Corvus has modest hopes that playing the “dark god” of the forest will start landing him some roles where he gets to do more talking and use more of his own face.  It turns out that they are filming a supernatural thriller in the backwoods Oregon town where the scriptwriter grew up.  It also just happens that she was using the local legends of her childhood as material.  And they are shooting the scenes where the forest god appears–surprise!–in the very haunted clearing with the stained, alter-like stones that is supposedly connected with the disappearance of some young girls way-back-when.  End of stage one.

If I stopped here, you would read the book, right?  And if the book stopped there, and the rest got written by Graham Joyce while possessed by the spirit of Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s imagination and diction, it would win the Nebula.

Unfortunately, stage two of a Hoffman novel is where it starts shooting off in all directions like a defective Roman Candle.  The plot does pretty much what you expect it to, but in a breathless, sketchy, “what just happened?  Nevermind”  way.  Nothing is given its full weight.  The story becomes thready and is lost in a series of magic-use vignettes, bound loosely together by a psychological breakthrough in the main character.

Hoffman’s main-character myopia is the most disappointing thing in her work.  She sets up expectations for a broader outlook (bye-bye, Nebula), but all those people you met in the first scenes, and wanted to watch interacting with each other, and get into the heads of . . . they never quite come into focus.  They exposit magical happenings and produce chatty, “with it” dialog, but they aren’t given souls.  In fact, they pretty much get jerked around: reacting, reacting, reacting to the main character as she explores her power, deepens her understanding of her past, and has magically significant sex.

I won’t say the main characters’ visionary breakthroughs aren’t emotional and interesting, but they are also trite–in fact, a little like something you would read in a self-help section of New Age bookstore in Eugene, or find on the bookshelf of your hippie aunt.  I am embarrassed for Hoffman when I read them, but admiring: that such a competent writer would care enough about adding a deeper dimension to her books as to open herself to charges of schmaltz.

Opal’s breakthrough has to do with her responsible-ness.  She is the oldest in a big family with a crazy mom who “liked being pregnant but didn’t like taking care of babies once they were external to herself.”  Everyone in the family has magic, but so far only Opal has flown from the nest with it.

The logical climax of the novel is, literally, the climax.  But you know something has gone wrong in a book when a mass orgy is boring.  And after that, things happen way too fast.

The arrival of the long awaited Deus ex Machina, Uncle Tobias:

“Niece, you haven’t introduced us yet,” said Tobias.

“What?” She looked at Phrixos.  Tobias had met Corvus on the Dead Loss set.  But now he was speaking to a deeper reality.  “My apologies, Uncle.  This is–I am not sure, exactly.  Some parts of him seem to be Corvus.  A portion is an entity I call Phrixos, an agent for the local power that possessed Corvus.  There’s another part, I think, that is the actual local power speaking for itself through him.  Phrixos is capable of deceit, so I don’t know whether to believe him when he pretends to be Corvus.  All of you inside the body of my boyfriend, this is my great-uncle Tobias, who has come to help me solve the problem you present.

Whew.  Glad we finally got that clear.

Of course, the real climax is inside Opal. Opal’s internal visualizations start in her “inner office,” a room with a fireplace, all her art supplies, and a big wooden desk with a twirly leather chair (I’m jealous).  In the company of her goth alter-ego/spirit guide “Other Opal,” Opal finds some surprising things beyond the door of her inner office.  We spend a lot of time wandering around inside Opal, which would be just fine if the world and people outside Opal were as carefully crafted.

Corvus really gets the short end of the stick during the Opal-fest.  Frankly, I was appalled.  The poor man is trying to make a career for himself, and he isn’t even allowed to get angry when his best role to date is taken over by a creepy supernatural understudy.  Hoffman effectively gags him.  He’s just this perfect, sensitive guy who wakes up blinking and says, “Where was I?”  He can’t help himself, and nobody else is really trying.  They don’t seem to consider the moral ramifications of sitting around while he is being ABSORBED in stages by an ancient, devil-like, pagan GOD.  “Oh, well, at least he can act as well as Corvus.”  Good grief, when someone is possessed, you are supposed TO TRY TO RESCUE HIM.

I suppose the naughty/evil god was meant to be sexy enough that you didn’t worry so much about Corvus being absorbed, but he wasn’t sexy at all, just a collection of smirking cliches.

It was the cutest thing, though, the way the author’s biases showed up in her descriptions of Corvus’ sexiness.  He moonlights recording audiobooks and has a perfect voice for it.  Also, he’s a reader:

“I think that’s why those girls call me.  Guranteed exposure.  The Beauty and the Beast captions write themselves.  It means nothing.”

She laughed.  “Oh, they call you, eh?”

“Most of the time I’d rather stay home and read a book . . .”


When she came out of the bathroom, Corvus was lounging on an overstuffed brown and white gingham couch; it was big enough to support him without parts of him hanging over the edge.  He wore blue pajamas and his reading glasses, and was studying the script.  Love swept through her, startling and inconvenient.  He glanced up at her over the tops of his glasses, and her throat tightened.  He could immobilize her with a look; better not let him know.

Reading glasses.  Sexy.  Definitely.

6 Responses to “Fall of Light by Nina Kiriki Hoffman”

  1. Aarti said

    Reading glasses ARE sexy 🙂

    I am so sad that this book was ultimately disappointing because, as you guessed, the initial premise sounded really good. It is sad that Hoffman doesn’t seem to be developing as a writer (and perhaps taking these quibbles into account?) if she continues to ultimately disappoint in this manner. Sigh.

    • Trapunto said

      Sighing too. I get the feeling Hoffman writes to please herself, which is a virtue if you look at it from the right angle. A lot of other readers don’t have any complaints.

  2. Jenny said

    It’s true. Reading glasses are sexy. I always love David Tennant’s Doctor best when he fetches out the brainy specs.

    I’ve never read anything by Nina Kiriki Hoffman – are there not any books by her that stay good straight through?

    • Trapunto said

      Hm. This is the third time in a month I’ve heard a reference to David Tennant’s Doctor being sexy. I wonder if it is the specs with everyone. Der Mann and I only just started watching Dr. Who. We have been going through the Netflix “view instantly” ones in chronological order, but got bogged down in Tom Baker. Maybe it’s time to skip ahead!

      A Hoffman that stays good? I would almost have said Red Heart Of Memories, or it’s prequel, Stir of Bones, but I’m not sure after refreshing myself on the plots. Stir of Bones is dark in a psychological horror way that does not appeal to me at all, avidly as I read it. Like all Hoffman’s novels the characters have that same moral cloudiness– moral drift?–as I described about Corvus’ possession. It’s really hard to pinpoint, since Hoffman herself obviously doesn’t see her characters as morally compromised; to me they’re just “off” somehow. The kind of books I would have hid under my bed from my mom as a kid. But try one. There’s a sexy witch guy who get a better shake than Corvus. And a kindly living house that is Hoffman’s most memorable character.

  3. Nymeth said

    Oh no! That’s so frustrating about her endings! I was getting all excited with your initial description of her work, even though I knew there was a “but” coming. Also, I’ve read a few of her short stories in anthologies over the years and remember enjoying them.

  4. Trapunto said

    I haven’t encountered her short fiction. Since her beginnings are so good, I wouldn’t be surprised if she were one of those writers whose short works shine brighter than her longer ones.

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