Nenia ♥ The Armchair Librarian ♥'s Reviews > Fire and Hemlock

Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
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Mar 06, 14

bookshelves: fairytale-retelling, ya-baby-ya
Read in August, 2008

In my opinion, this is one of Diana Wynne Jones's best books. EVER.

Fantasy but not fantasy in the classical sense; romance but not again, not in the classical sense, Fire and Hemlock is a modern retelling of Tam Lin; a Scottish ballad about a maiden (because where would any ballad be without the token fair maiden?) and a man who is the tithe of the faeries. They fall in love, but the Faerie Queen doesn't want to relinquish her hold on him. Unlike most fairy tales, it is up to the girl to keep the man from being sacrificed as a tithing. She features a strong heroine not uncommon in Tamora Pierce's books.

Reading this in middle school really made a strong impression on me. I remember being totally lost in the world--both in England and Polly's fictional (and yet all-too-real) Stow-on-the-Water. It was completely different from other novels I had read up to that point, because it didn't attempt to talk down to me or make me feel like a child, like Animoprhs did. The author never assumed that I wouldn't forget the characters' names and histories, and wove helpful but subtle reminders throughout the text just in case I did. Every time I read this book, I come across something new and it was only recently that I actually realized Fire and Hemlock had roots in Tam Lin.

In this rendition, Polly meets a cellist named Thomas (Tom Lynn) at a funeral being held on Halloween. The wrongness of this is foreshadowed by Polly's grandmother when she remarks about what a bad omen that is. Polly finds herself in a room full of stuffy rich people and realizes immediately that she does not belong but finds herself trapped. The game has become all too real. Luckily, Tom Lynn rescues her, escorting her out to a mysterious garden and, ultimately, letting her choose some photographs bequeathed to him in the will. Polly gets one of these photographs as a gift; it is called "Fire and Hemlock" (hence the title). It is interesting that she thinks of him as an old man for most of the book, because later one finds out that this is not the case; his glasses almost magically age him. Polly continues to visit Mr. Lynn partly to rebel against her grandmother and partly from boredom.

Gradually, over a period of years, Polly slowly finds herself falling in love with Thomas Lynn. What's fun is that she doesn't even realize it's happening, but she gets outrageously jealous when she thinks his landlady is is wife; and then again, when she finds out Mr. Lynn has gotten a girlfriend. But Laurel, Thomas's ex-wife, will not relinquish the hold on her former husband so easily. And then, when Polly's memories begin to fade away, and nobody else recalls her memories of Tom Lynn or her misadventures as a youth, she begins to wonder how likely it is to be the only sane one in a world full of crazies.

Ms. Jones writes excellent female characters who are strong and brave, and manage to live up to the foolishness of their ages without being overtly stupid. Lots of adventure stories and classics are mentioned in here (either directly, or indirectly--as Tom Lynn's fight with the giant could be seen as a nod to Miguel Cervantes' Don Quixote). Her writing style is wordy but never clunky, and very much the picture of traditional story-telling. I never get tired of reading Fire and Hemlock. So if you like books about books, strong heroines, and retellings of classic fables, too, this book would probably be a great choice!
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