Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Review: Fire and Hemlock

As an avid fantasy reader, it is probably unconscionable for me to dislike Diana Wynne Jones, but I have to admit that I just don’t understand her appeal. Her style doesn’t seem to work for me, and it’s a real shame because she ranks right up there with so many of my favorite authors of low fiction, including J.K. Rowling, Patricia Wrede, Diane Duane, and Neil Gaiman. It’s true that I found Charmed Life, well, charming, but I’ve had difficulty enjoying The Lives of Christopher Chant, Howl’s Moving Castle, and now, Fire and Hemlock.
It’s disappointing because the premise of the book was so intriguing. While packing for college in her childhood room at Granny’s, Polly reflects on a photograph called Fire and Hemlock and a book called Times out of Mind and realizes that she has vague memories of them both that don’t align with her normal set of memories. Polly looks back and discovers an entire, alternate second set of memories, and most of the book is a chronological relating of what could almost be an alternate life, beginning with a funeral into which Polly accidentally wandered. There, she met an ostrich-looking man named Thomas Lynn, and the story of their ever-deepening friendship as Polly grows up has ended up completely erased from her memory. The pair delight in creating a fantasy in which Tom Lynn is Tan Coul, a heroic adventurer, and Polly is his assistant, who pretends to be a boy and is named Hero. They make up an entire world of characters and enemies, but when the two begin to discover that these made-up characters exist in the real world, Polly begins to suspect that her friend Mr. Lynn isn’t telling her everything, and that his ex-family members, who keep track of Polly in a most sinister manner, are hiding a dangerous secret…
The novel had a fascinating premise, but I found that it just couldn’t deliver. For one thing, Polly’s real life interested me far more than the fantasy part of the story, and this is unusual for me when reading fantasy books. Jones characterized Polly’s family members quite realistically, and her paranoid mother and indifferent father made me want to scream at them to take care of their daughter! Polly’s evolving friendships with her girl friends also rang true; as girls grow into teenagers and then adults, it is natural for people to change and friendships to shift. Perhaps my favorite characters were members of Lynn’s string quartet; they fascinated me and were given far too little page time. One problem with this book is that all of these were peripheral characters. The main plot was played out with Laurel, Lynn’s ex-wife, and Mr. Leroy and Seb, members of her family. Not only were these three characters annoying, the plot in which they featured was difficult to follow.
And this brings me to my main problem with Diane Wynne Jones. Her plots are not well-written or well-paced. Jones can write a brilliant scene, but she fails on the larger level. There are loose ends – for example, what triggers Polly’s sudden retrieval of her missing memories? – and a poor use of foreshadowing. Details that seem to be intended as clues to a final reveal are abandoned and never spoken of again. In all three of her books that I mentioned that I disliked, the story meanders clumsily on until, in the last pages, too many big secrets are revealed, and then the story is over. In the case of Fire and Hemlock, Jones is retelling the myth of Tam Lin. I didn’t know the story before reading this book, but after looking up the myth, I don’t believe that knowing it in advance would have helped the final chapter make any more sense because Jones deviates significantly from this story.
I thought the details of the photograph would play in more. I thought the book would be more important. I thought the plot in which made-up characters and adventures come true was a clever one, one that would have worked well if that was all this novel attempted. As I was reading Fire and Hemlock, I had many expectations, and all of them were disappointed by Jones’ trying to cram an explanation of too many threads into the very last pages.
Things to consider:
Have any of you read this book, or any others by her? Did you have the same issues with plot and pacing that I did? If I were to try just one more of her books, which should it be?
Things I’m reading:
Good Wives, Louisa May Alcott
Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell
Harmonic Function in Chromatic Music, Daniel Harrison
Musicology and Difference, Ruth A. Solie, ed.
True Confessions: Feminist Professors Tell Stories Out of School, Susan Gubar, ed.


  1. Hi Samantha, saw your comment at Frigate to Utopia and found myself here. As a Diana Wynne Jones fan, I think her style is actually quite hard to get. She tends to jump and expect her readers to grasp her internal logic. But Fire and Hemlock to me was singularly profound and sublime. I agree the ending was a bit of a disappointment, but once you see her fantasy-logic you're on the way to appreciating DWJ.

    The best thing in Fire and Hemlock that distinguishes it from fantasy novels is the emphasis on the personal relationships. Most fantasy novels tend to be shallow in this aspect but not DWJ, which is why I love her books. Christopher Chant is real and convincing when he is not battling wicked wizards, and that is a lot. People would kill me for this but I think he is better-developed than Harry Potter, though in plot and background Rowling excels. Unlike Harry, DWJ's heroes are not universally popular or singularly talented kids. They tend to be misanthropes or clumsy bumblers and only discover their talent in unexpected ways. Witch Week shatters the illusion of happy schools, but the characters of Charles and Nan are a piece of art.

    The books you've struggled with, strangely, are my favourites, perhaps because they're so Wynne-Jonesian. Castle in the Sky is good (so funny!), and A Charmed Life (though that's for younger people). If you're into darker works, but with less humour and fewer twisted plots, The Time of the Ghost is a powerful one. Hexwood is not bad too, but you'll have to reread it to get it. I hear the Dalemark Quartet is good but haven't read it.

    Most of her works are meant for teenagers so you have to be young to enjoy its perplexity. An adult would expect much more out of the plot, though really it's quite complicated.

    Ironically in the days when I used to believe in magic (would you believe I was already well in my teens?) I found DWJ's explanations so in accord with my own sentiments and that prolonged my fantasy beliefs till I became interested in science. Even to this day, my cynical self yields to the force that is Diana Wynne Jones.

  2. Hi Caroline,

    Thanks for your insight! I think I definitely need to try a few more of her works (and perhaps take some time to re-read). I agree with you that her strength is relationships between characters. In a way, from the limited number of her novels that I'm familiar with, I almost feel as if the relationships are the focus and the fantasy comes second (unlike, say, Patricia Wrede and her Enchanted Forest Chronicles, where the characters are somewhat superficial and her strength is in the inventive magical scenarios). Perhaps it's a shame that I didn't encounter DWJ as a teenager reading fantasy nonstop! Maybe I would've enjoyed her more, as you say. Thanks very much for the encouragement to keep trying. I'll have to check out those other books you mention.