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Fire and Hemlock (thoughts)

August 2, 2010

Last month, after being twitter-pressured encouraged by Jenny and Nymeth, I put in an ILL reqest for my first Diana Wynne Jones novel: Fire and Hemlock. I ended up reading it all in one afternoon, gulping it down, and once I was done, Jenny asked if I would wait to review it until her DWJ Week in August. Of course I agreed, so here I am participating with other bloggers, both long-time DWJ lovers and new fans, in a week of book reviews and DWJ posts and Jenny’s giveaway and all sorts of goodiness.

Fire and Hemlock is a novel based around the Tam Lin legend, which is one of my very favourite Celtic legends (I’m sure it comes as a surprise to you that I’m all about strong women). I also adore the melding of myth and reality in books, so this was a real treat. I jumped right into Polly’s story; as she’s cleaning her childhood bedroom for college, she suddenly starts remembering things she’d forgotten before, particularly Tom, a mysterious man she met in childhood and befriended. She can’t figure out how she could have forgotten someone so important, and as she sorts through her memories, she realises that something sinister must be at work.

After the beginning, the story follows chronological order and begins when Polly is 10 and first meets Tom when she wanders into an odd sort of funeral at a house down the street. DWJ’s writing was marvelous; I connected with Polly immediately, was intrigued by Tom, and couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. Some of the scenes made me cry (Polly’s parents are particularly unfeeling, which is the way of fairy tales, isn’t it?), others made me smile or just glow with the warmth (the friendship that develops between Polly and Tom feels so real and important, their love shown through little things), and I simply revelled in the world she’d built. One of my very favourite aspects of their friendship is that Tom is always sending big parcels of books to Polly, and marvelous books at that.

So, while I completely loved most of the book, and think that Ana and Jenny were spot-on with recommending this title, I must say the very ending (perhaps the last 10, 15 pages) was a disappointment. First of all, DWJ’s plotting/writing got a bit muddled, and I had to reread the climatic scene 2 or 3 times before I got even a bit of a handle on what happened, and I’m still not completely positive. Second of all, after an entire book about the love growing between Polly and Tom, there was no romantic scene payoff! I wanted at least a few paragraphs of them happy together, and I’m not sure why DWJ decided to thwart what must be a common desire in readers of the book. Still, this didn’t spoil the book for me, and I’d still highly recommend it!

So, I can’t say that I now adore DWJ, but I’m definitely interested in reading more of her and I see the potential for adoration (marvelous writing, vivid characters, mythological influence…what’s not to love?). My problem is, she has such an extensive backlist that it’s a bit overwhelming, so I’m planning on reading the various participants’ posts this week to help me get a handle on things. :)

If you’ve read Fire and Hemlock, what did you make of the ending? If you haven’t, what are you waiting for?

40 Comments leave one →
  1. August 2, 2010 7:43 am

    I liked the book, but like you I found the ending totally confusing. I read it several times, and it still doesn’t make sense to me what happened. (Kind of like a Robin McKinley ending, I think- a whirlwind of confusion). I wasn’t really expecting a romance to develop between Polly and Tom though, because he was so much older than her it didn’t occur to me, I always just expected them to be good close friends in a kind of mentor/daughter sort of way.

    • August 4, 2010 12:02 am

      Since I knew the Tam Lin legend going in, I did expect them to have some romance…and I don’t think they were THAT far apart in age (I’m thinking 10-12 years, since later she realises her 10-year-old self didn’t realise how young he was). Plus, Time Traveller’s Wife conditioned me for semi-awkward romances. lol

  2. August 2, 2010 8:07 am

    That ending WAS mind boggling. I really want to read the book again and again just to get to grips with it. I’m sure that it would be beneficial.

    I love Diana Wynne Jones – there’s definitely a lot of room for absolute adoration. I loved the Dalemark Quartet – Cart And Cwidder, The Spellcoats, Drowned Ammet and The Crown of Dalemark. The first three stories are all separate, in that you can read them really in any order, but I recommend the order of publication. DWJ never I fear, writes her series in chronological order like most authors might think of doing! But all the better for it.

    The 4th one, which I read first actually really must be read last ties them all together and it’s very interesting the separate stories, histories, characters merge together finally. A very good series of books one of my favourites.

    Dogsbody was my first DWJ – more on the younger end but extraordinarily good.

    My DWJ week book however was on the Eight Days of Luke:

    • August 4, 2010 12:04 am

      Once I’d read it 2 or 3 times I felt like I had a good handle on it! The first time through, I got 80% of it, but I really wanted that last 20% to make sense (at least to me…I have no clue if my understanding is what DWJ meant). Thanks for the suggestions on future DWJ reads! :D

  3. August 2, 2010 8:08 am

    By the way, I LOVE your blog banner.

    • August 4, 2010 12:05 am

      Aww, thanks! I had fun taking it, and I think it sums me up nicely. :)

  4. August 2, 2010 9:13 am

    Haven’t read any DWJ yet, but I did see Studio Ghibli’s ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’. Not sure how faithful it was to the novel though.

    • August 2, 2010 12:16 pm

      It’s not very similar. There are some of the same characters but their actions, motivations and even alliances are mostly different. It was the first DWJ I picked up (because of the film) and I loved it anyway though!

      • August 4, 2010 12:05 am

        Thanks for clearing that up Kristen! I’ve heard good things about Howl’s Moving Castle. :)

  5. August 2, 2010 10:44 am

    This was my introduction to the Tam Lin legend as a teen, which has since become one of my favorites. (Tam Lin, by Pamela Dean, being the perfect example.)

    I loved the scenery of this book— it was kind of like Edward Gorey meets Magritte meets Yoko Ono. I wasn’t sure about the plot, however… it got strange and hard to fathom at the end, not to mention the Tom Lynne/Polly dynamic had a little age-inappropriateness.

    But still: Now/Here… I always wanted to know how those vases worked!

    • August 4, 2010 12:06 am

      Now I want to read that Dean book! I didn’t think the Tom/Polly relationship felt inappropriate, once I’d worked out that he wasn’t *that* much older than her (10-12 years in my reading). But as I mentioned above, I did enjoy Time Traveller’s Wife!

      I want those vases in my garden. :D

  6. August 2, 2010 10:49 am

    This sounds good, I also like strong women characters…. the wimpy ones drive me up the wall.

    I think I need to try this book. :) Thanks!

    • August 4, 2010 12:06 am

      I hope you can get ahold of it! It’s out of print (which seems crazy, since it’s really, really good).

  7. August 2, 2010 12:14 pm

    The ending was rushed on this one but it didn’t affect how I felt about the book and I didn’t really have trouble figuring out what was going on. Although, having read many other DWJ books, I probably wouldn’t suggest Fire and Hemlock as a first venture.

    Thoughts on the parents — I rarely want to slap a character across the face but Polly’s mom could have used one or two (and a shake or two for good measure)! She was infuriating! As I’ve read a few DWJs over the last week, I’m starting to see a pattern of bad mothers and neglectful fathers. Kind of depressing!

    I hope you find the right fit for you next time. The nice thing with this author is that though all of her books are fantasy, they really range from low to high and in a wide reader age range.

    • August 4, 2010 12:08 am

      I knew what was going on when I read it, but I wasn’t 100% clear on all of the details, you know? That’s why I went back and read it a couple times…especially once Jenny told me her interpretation (that Polly & Tom couldn’t be together because they had to thwart Laural…while I interpreted their little conversation the exact opposite way!). I really just wanted more of a Polly & Tom together at last, knowing the truth of each other payoff. Other than that, I LOVED the book, especially it’s complexity and DWJ’s writing. I’m sorry that didn’t come through in my original post. :/

  8. Kathleen permalink
    August 2, 2010 12:26 pm

    Sounds like one I shouldn’t miss out on reading. I’m in love with Tom already if he brings Polly parcels of books. I’m disappointed to hear about the ending though!

    • August 4, 2010 12:08 am

      The rest of the book is perfect though! ;)

  9. Mumsy permalink
    August 2, 2010 5:31 pm

    I loved this content summary, and also your thoughts about the ending. I didn’t understand the ending either, but this was my thought: If I were to encounter magic in real life, I feel pretty certain that I would not understand the rules at all. So, you know, the incomprehensibility sort of made sense. In a weird way, of course.

    • August 4, 2010 12:10 am

      Such a good point! I should have clarified; my main confusion wasn’t with the showdown w/ the fairies but Tom & Polly’s conversation at the end. :) I didn’t mind the weirdness in the fairy contest, but I want a clear ‘I love you, and let’s spend our lives together’ kind of thing. LOL (Obviously, I’m an Austen girl at heart.)

  10. August 2, 2010 5:50 pm

    What my mother said. #relievedmycleverMumsygotherefirst

    I know I have said this a hundred times all over the blogosphere, but only because it’s completely true: Diana Wynne Jones really grows on you with rereads. So although I was not sure about the ending initially, it felt better when I’d read it more times. I hope you do carry on reading DWJ’s other books–she is all about tangling up strands of different myths, which I love. Maybe Aunt Maria for you next? It is all with the gender issues and I know you enjoy those. :D

    • August 4, 2010 12:11 am

      I definitely will read more DWJ! As I said on your blog, I’m afraid this post came off as lukewarm, when I completely loved almost the whole book. That’s what I get for posting on a Monday morning. :/ Anyway, I hope I can find a copy of this for my very own (or that they bring it back into print, gosh darn it), because I can see myself rereading it lots of times. :)

  11. justbookreading permalink
    August 3, 2010 3:46 am

    I haven’t read this one but I’m going to see if my library has it. She’s written so many books it’s hard to pick which one to read. I decided on Witch Week (kids, boarding school, people being accused of practicing witchcraft – so far so good) and I’m hoping Howl’s Moving Castle will come in before the end of the week.

    • August 4, 2010 12:12 am

      I hope your library has it! Witch Week sounds really interesting. :)

  12. August 3, 2010 5:31 am

    I’ve seen notices for this event around the blogosphere and have been intrigued. This book sounds really interesting, especially the fact that it is based on a Celtic myth of a strong woman. I’ll be adding it to my wishlist. Too bad the ending wasn’t as good for you!

    • August 4, 2010 12:12 am

      I think you’d definitely enjoy it Amy!

  13. August 3, 2010 5:54 am

    I just put this on my reading list, although now I’m a bit anxious, seeing how Jones denies the main couple. (It’s Little Women and Jo and Laurie all over again!)

    • August 4, 2010 12:13 am

      It’s not as bad as Jo & Laurie (although, I was an Amy fan for myself so that didn’t bother me)…more that there’s just not a big declaration kind of thing. ;)

  14. August 3, 2010 4:09 pm

    I didn’t understand or like the ending, but it was my first reading, so maybe I’ll have to see if Jenny’s right about it on rereading.

    • August 4, 2010 12:13 am

      Yeah: I think DWJ could have been a bit more clear!

      • August 4, 2010 11:13 am

        Your question about the ending was the main inspiration for my post about the book today!

  15. August 3, 2010 8:59 pm

    Oh, Tam Lin is one of my favorites, and Nymeth said I had to read this one so after not finding it at the library or at my used bookstore I broke down and ordered a used copy online! So much for my book buying moratorium!

  16. August 4, 2010 5:44 am

    This sounds good, though the somewhat muddled ending must have been a let down. I know next to nothing about Celtic mythology, which makes this story even more intriguing to me.

  17. August 4, 2010 2:09 pm

    I love DWJ, but I always find that her endings have a big climactic action seen that is totally confusing. In general I do find that action scenes bore me and I seem to sort of skim them. I feel better that I’m not the only one.

    And does your library not have ANY Diana Wynne Jones? Is that why you had to ILL, or just that one? It would be so sad if they didn’t have a single one — fear not, the library here in San Antonio has the entire back catalog!

    For your next DWJ, I strongly recommend Howl’s Moving Castle. Sophie is a great heroine. Dogsbody is my other favorite.

  18. trapunto permalink
    August 4, 2010 5:35 pm

    Delurking to say Happy Diana Wynne Jones week! Isn’t Fire and Hemlock just one of those books that just DEMANDS to be read in a single sitting, until you are dry eyed and sweaty palmed? (In a library carrel in my case.) Same first impression of the ending. Later thought it was brilliant. Like Fiona I am an advocate of the publication-order reading sequence; except the Chrestomanci books, which shouldn’t have been numbered the way they were when they were re-packaged as a series, but which also need to be shuffled slightly out of publication order. I am not the only nerd with an opinion, either–there is actually a specific section on Chrestomanci reading order in the DWJ wikipedia entry.

  19. August 14, 2010 10:02 am

    Fire and Hemlock is one of the books I really want to read by Wynne Jones. Your review makes me want to read it even more now! :-D

  20. Astrea permalink
    January 11, 2011 7:37 am

    I first read this book when I was 10, Polly’s age… and I never realised it was a love story until I reread it at the age of 16. (I’m 19 now)

    It’s my favourite DWJ book and I can’t believe they don’t print it anymore. *shocked*

    Another good DWJ book which I didn’t see mentioned here is Hexwood.


  1. Rounding up links (part 1) « Jenny's Books
  2. Fire & Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones | Page247
  3. Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones | Iris on Books

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