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Stella Matutina
books and stories and musings, oh my!
183. Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones 
20th-Oct-2010 01:49 pm
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Publisher: HarperTrophy
Publication Year: 1985
Pages: 420
Status: library

LibraryThing Info

When Polly realizes that she has two conflicting sets of memories, she sets out to separate fact from fiction and discover what happened to her most beloved childhood friend, the musician Thomas Lynn.

Shanra of Libri Touches has declared October Tam Lin Month! I knew I wanted to participate, and this book sprang instantly to mind. Y'all told me it was TEH AWESOME, so I borrowed it from the library and took it on my recent walkabout.

I read it in two sittings. It’s that kind of a book.

FIRE AND HEMLOCK feels rather unlike the other DWJ titles I’ve read in that it’s a purely contemporary story. It takes place in our world, and the magical elements remain understated for much of the novel. Its fascination comes not from flashy worldbuilding or inventive, immersive magical systems, but rather from the gradual unfolding of Polly’s life. We follow her from ten through to nineteen, and we see just how her friendship with Tom shapes her as a person.

Of course, it is a little more complex--and a little more magical--than that. Even Polly and Tom’s most lighthearted adventures possess gothic, supernatural undertones that hint at the truth behind both Polly’s buried memories and Tom’s place in his ex-wife Laurel’s strange, insular family. Those who’re familiar with the source material will certainly spot the parallels between the myth and this contemporary work, but I don’t think you need to know about Tam Lin in order to enjoy Polly’s tale. This isn’t a straight retelling of the old story; it riffs off a familiar theme in a way that encourages, but does not assume, additional knowledge. I think you could just as easily read Tam Lin and spot the connections with FIRE AND HEMLOCK as the other way around.

A minor complaint, now: Polly and Tom aren’t that far apart in age, but Jones initially gives us the impression that he’s a much older man. I knew the book was shaping up to be a love story, so I found this pretty damned creepy. It does sort of make sense that she takes so long to reveal Tom’s age--we’re seeing things through Polly’s eyes, and her ten-year-old self thinks that even fourteen-year-old Seb is ancient--but I wish she’d done it sooner. If this squiggs you out, too, rest assured that a) by the end of the book, the age difference isn’t so pronounced and b) the romance doesn’t really come out until Polly’s old enough.

That’s a relatively small issue, though. In the main, I loved this. I even liked the ending, which is apparently a sticking point for most readers. I don’t hesitate to recommend it to you, though it is, unfortunately, out of print. I hope you’re able to access it through your library, or find a used copy.

4 stars

Strange Asides:

Just look at that cover! You’d think it was painted way back in the dark ages of cover art (ie, the 1970s), but you’d be dead wrong. It’s from 2002.

Shocked me, too.

Age Breakdown:

Polly’s younger than me all the way through, as are most of her friends. Tom’s younger than me in the beginning, but older than me by the end. I assume his friends follow the same pattern. Everyone’s grandmothers, parents and ex-wives are older than me.

Other Reviews:

A Stripd Armchair
Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog
Book Nut
DogEar Diary
dreaming out loud
everyday reads
"Fiddle-de-dee's not English."
Geranium Cat's Bookshelf
Jenny's Books
Necromancy Never Pays
Rhinoa's Ramblings
Tales From the Reading Room (F&H is near the bottom)
things mean a lot
tip of the iceberg
Valentina's Room

Did I miss yours? Please let me know so I can add it to my list!
Mythology & Folklore
20th-Oct-2010 07:27 am (UTC)
Oh, it makes me so happy to see people reading and enjoying F&H! It's one of my desert island books. I like the ending as well, though the first time I read it it took me a while to come around to it. But I couldn't stop thinking about it, which just goes to show that DWJ was doin it right.

20th-Oct-2010 10:08 pm (UTC)
She is the QUEEN of doin it rite. J'aime Diana Wynne Jones!
20th-Oct-2010 01:04 pm (UTC)
This, of course, is the Dianna Wynne Jones I want to read, and the one that's out of print. Luckily, my library systems have, I think, at least one copy. This'll be my first Jones, so thanks for the heads up on the age thing and the cover. (2002? Oh, goodness.)
20th-Oct-2010 10:09 pm (UTC)
Good luck! I hope you're able to get your hands on it.

I still can't get over the cover. I mean, who would've thought that publishers were actively comissioning work like that as late as 2002? And not in an ironic way? It boggles my mind.
29th-Oct-2010 02:01 pm (UTC)
Out of print? I got a new copy for my 17th birthday, which is only about a year ago. It unfortunately got ripped. I sincerely hope it's not out of print, I would like to get another one! My copy has a very different cover though.
7th-Nov-2010 05:16 am (UTC)
From what I've read around the blogosphere, I get the impression that a lot of her books have gone out of print just within the last year. It's sad. :(
20th-Oct-2010 08:29 pm (UTC) - reading Tam Lin with Shanra this month
I'm doing the Tam Lin reading this month with Shanra. I actually started with Fire and Hemlock (review here (http://the-iceberg.blogspot.com/2010/10/fire-and-hemlock-by-diana-wynne-jones.html)) and loved it! I just finished Tam Lin by Pamela Dean and still need to write up a review. I thought she took an interesting angle on the re-telling.
20th-Oct-2010 10:10 pm (UTC) - Re: reading Tam Lin with Shanra this month
Y'know, I knew you'd reviewed it, and I somehow missed linking to you. Silly Mem! I'll add you right now.
20th-Oct-2010 08:30 pm (UTC) - weird html coding
So ... apparently my attempt to insert html coding into the comments failed. Sorry about that. Does Live Journal not allow in comments?
20th-Oct-2010 10:17 pm (UTC) - Re: weird html coding
LJ's a bit weird about stuff like that. I see a clickable link in the e-mail I get to say that I've received a new comment, and in my LJ inbox, but it doesn't seem to allow clickable links in the publicly viewable version.
20th-Oct-2010 09:33 pm (UTC)
The cover art on the (as-yet-unread) copy I have is much more modern-looking, although thoroughly unhelpful regarding the contents of the story. I'm glad for the warning/reassurance about the age difference not being as bad as it seems, since age-inappropriate romance tends to squick me out severely.

(Although I just realized that that's not always the case; the book I'm reading now has a 55-year-old man with a 19/20-year-old woman and for some reason that doesn't bother me at all. Weird.)
20th-Oct-2010 10:18 pm (UTC)
Did they meet at that point, or had they known one another for years? I find it waaaaay more squig-worthy when the much-older party has watched the much-younger party grow up.
21st-Oct-2010 02:06 am (UTC)
Good point. In the Sharing Knife series (which is what I'm talking about), they met at their current ages. Plus, he's all Aragorn-ish in that he comes from a race of humans that live longer and age slower than "normal" people, so he doesn't *look* 55, which cuts down the squick factor a bit as well.
22nd-Oct-2010 01:21 am (UTC)
Ah, when the older party ages a lot more slowly, I'm almost always less squigged. Although, I'm usually upset enough at the younger/regularly ageing party's eventual death to compensate for it...
20th-Oct-2010 10:43 pm (UTC)
That cover is just awful! Reminds me of some of Tanith Lee's covers. Or most of Tanith Lee's covers.
20th-Oct-2010 10:46 pm (UTC)
Maybe there's a bad-cover conspiracy against British fantasy? (Tanith Lee is British, isn't she?)
21st-Oct-2010 02:09 pm (UTC)
Call me crazy, but I think I might actually like that cover. (But then, it has a lot of blue. I like me some blue.)

I wish I could've liked this one as much as everyone else seems to have... I think I should ask everyone to prod me into a reread a few years down the line to see what was circumstantial and what wasn't... I'm glad you've enjoyed it, though! ^-^
22nd-Oct-2010 01:22 am (UTC)
It does have blueness going for it; I'll give it that much. It definitely contributed to my impression of Tom as an old man, though. He looks like a 70-year-old woman in that picture.
25th-Oct-2010 01:12 pm (UTC)
Jason's reading this one right now and really enjoying it.
26th-Oct-2010 09:27 pm (UTC)
I'm glad to hear it. I hope he enjoys the whole package.
30th-Oct-2010 01:04 am (UTC)
Yay, yay! Yay, hooray, I knew you would like this book! Everyone must love it! It is so great! My lovely friend Jane had the same slightly-squiffed-out reaction to the Polly-Tom thing but I didn't because I cleverly read the end first. #myreadingmethodforthewin
7th-Nov-2010 05:18 am (UTC)
Y'know, I'm sort of thinking of trying your reading method, just for a week or two as an experiment, but I'm kind of scared to take the plunge. You're very brave for doing an entire month of no-endings.
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