Thursday, November 08, 2007

A Novel About Aliens in Disguise Among Us

Last week I read Nina Kiriki Hoffman's 2006 novel SPIRITS THAT WALK IN SHADOW, featuring members of the magical family introduced in THE THREAD THAT BINDS THE BONES. Although human, they have powers they have to keep secret, which make them in a sense alien to the ordinary majority of humankind. They remind me of Zenna Henderson's People, although less benign. In Kiriki's novel, told in alternating first-person chapters by the two protagonists, Jaimie has undertaken the radical step of enrolling in college. Since her branch of the family is rather isolationist, she knows little about the outside world. Such mundane phenomena as money are mysterious to her. Having an outsider for a roommate is a challenge. Jaimie has to remember what topics she's forbidden to talk about, and she has to conceal her powers, such as her Sign Air ability to shape tangible objects out of the surrounding atmosphere. Her roommate, Kim, is initially suspicious of Jaimie's strange ways, including the pagan rites with which she and her father consecrate the room.

Jaimie discovers that Kim's deep depression is not natural. Kim is the prey of a viri, a truly alien species living in disguise among humanity. Viri can take any form but usually choose the human shape for ease of interaction with potential prey. They have no gender of their own, reproducing by fission when they've fed enough to build up excess mass. They feed on emotion. Kim's viri has been stimulating her bouts of despair. Many viri, however, don't harm their prey, feeding moderately and preferring positive over negative emotions. Even Kim's viri turns out to be not so much evil as trapped by her (or his, as the creature finally becomes a half-grown boy) addiction to the irresistible taste of Kim's energy. The resolution at the end takes a non-violent form that I found very satisfying. I always enjoy tales of other species trying to fit into human society, so I recommend this book.

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