Fire and Hemlock

Fire and Hemlock - Diana Wynne Jones I love Diana Wynne Jones; the wit, the insight, the strong characters of both sexes, the innovation... But... a “romantic fantasy” and “thoroughly satisfying love story” this aint.

The book is brilliant, undoubtedly. A modern (circa 1980s England) fairytale retelling of Tam Lin, with several other fairytales, epics, myths and legends woven into the story. What really puts my appreciation for the genius of this book over the top is Jones’ essay included in the most recent version: “The Heroic Ideal - A Personal Odyssey”. As a writer, the level of intimidation inherent in seeing one of my author-heroes consciously craft a story with such insight, inspiration, and academic excellence is near-crushing. Bow down in awe of her craft.

However, as a reader of YA fantasy fiction in 2016, the book leaves something to be desired. Orienting the reader to follow Polly’s struggle to piece together her fragmented, broken memories is a clever construct; you’re experiencing the story, the confusion, through the eyes of the hero... but it doesn’t manage to raise tension convincingly, since you spend most of the book with a vague sense of menace, and only see the real horror of what’s been done at the very end, when you’re immediately distracted by the action.

The ‘broken-home’ relationships, with Polly’s self-absorbed mother who endlessly repeats the same destructive patterns, Polly’s immature father and his control-freak girlfriend are chillingly familiar. You’ve met *that* woman or *that* guy, or seen *that* divorce, with the kids caught in the middle and then lost somewhere in the fray.

Jones’ truest genius shines in these moments of human insight (again, awe and crippling inadequacy), but when it comes to Polly and Thomas Lynn, something falls short. Maybe the relationships here are too chillingly familiar; the imaginative, precocious yet shy little girl; the awkward, social misfit that finds it easier to find a friend in a child than navigate adult relationships... there are definite shades of ick here, especially when you realize that (spoiler!) Thomas Lynn is Polly’s eventual romantic interest. I didn’t see it coming, honestly. The earliest flashbacks place Polly around age 10 and Thomas is already divorced (so presumably 18+). There’s some hand waving near the end about him being surprisingly young or something, but still... Yech. I assume he wasn’t meant to come across as an exploitative man-child, but it’s hard not to read in that vein.

The fantasy mechanics were a little unclear, even at the end: there seem to have been multiple generations of ‘Tam Lin’s’ (so I assumed Polly would connect to the latest one, not the older Thomas Lynn), and nothing is really explained in great depth. So, full marks for subtlety, but I would have liked a little more of overt fairy/fantasy/magic (mostly things slid from mundane to magical realism and back again) and a romance that I could get behind a bit more. However, still a brilliant piece of writing, with (horrifyingly) real characterization, clever mechanics and a well-thought-out adaptation of myth and legend into a plausible real-world structure. It’s definitely worth the day or two to read.

Now pardon me while I go rewrite my entire backlog in shame.