Fire and Hemlock is written by Diana Wynne Jones. It was published in 1985 by Greenwillow. It is based on the poems “Tam Lin” and “Thomas the Rhymer.” Jones’ website can be found here.
Genre: Fantasy, Realistic, Young Adult
“Polly has two sets of memories….
One is normal: school, home, friends. The other, stranger memories begin nine years ago, when she was ten and gate-crashed an odd funeral in the mansion near her grandmother’s house. Polly’s just beginning to recall the sometimes marvelous, sometimes frightening adventures she embarked on with Tom Lynn after that. And then she did something terrible, and everything changed.
But what did she do? Why can’t she remember? Polly must uncover the secret, or her true love—and perhaps Polly herself—will be lost.”
“You’re a bit bored, but that doesn’t matter, because keeping the shop is only what everyone thinks you do. Really you’re secretly a hero, a very strong one who’s immortal—”
“Immortal?” Mr. Lynn said, startled.
“Well nearly,” said Polly. “You’d live for hundreds of years if someone doesn’t kill you in one of your battles. Your name is really—um—Tan Coul and I’m your assistant.”
“Are you my assistant in the shop as well, or just when I’m being a hero?” asked Mr. Lynn.
“No. I’m me,” said Polly. “I’m a learner hero. I come with you whenever you go out on a job.”
Tan Hanivar’s long nose and gloomy face ought to be easier to find—and there he was! He was among the violins too, over to the right, behind Tan Thare. The gloomy face had a mop of a dark hair above it, more than Polly had imagined, but it was definitely poor, shape-changing Tan Hanivar. Polly pointed. “Tan Hanivar. What’s his real name?”
“Samuel Rensky. And Tan Thare is usually known as Edward Davies. Any luck with Tan Audel?” Mr. Lynn asked rather tensely.
But Polly still did not know what Tan Audel looked like. She searched and searched the mass of faces. “Sorry,” she said at last. “I just don’t know him.”
“Him?” said Mr. Lynn. “Er—have you considered, as a female assistant hero yourself, that Tan Audel might be a woman?” He sounded really nervous about it.
As soon as he said it, Polly knew he was right. “Oh, good heavens!” she said. “I never thought!” Of course Tan Audel was a woman, now she thought. She even knew, dimly, some of the things Tan Audel was famous for. She went back to the photograph, scanning the ladies in dark dresses she had been ignoring up to then, very much ashamed of herself. And there was Tan Audel at last.
Cover Art 1 (the version I read; Tom looks like an old man, unfortunately)
Warnings: None (well, possibly the age difference).
Recommended Age Range: 14+
What I Liked:
I love Howl’s Moving Castle and Charmed Life because of their charm and wit. I love Fire and Hemlock because it is so different from them. Fire and Hemlock is long, and slow, and complicated, and complex, and wonderful. It shows, in a way that some of her other books don’t, how much of a crafter Jones is. Jones loves the slow build-up, the slow development, and then everything is revealed and/or explained briefly and naturally at the very end. A few books I’ve read like to explain things by a summary given by a character, or by an explanatory dialogue. It’s spelled out perfectly clear as to what happened, and why, and how, and etc. Not so with Jones. Her revelation fits the flow and pace of what happened before, and it happens quickly, and she expects the reader to follow along. She does not dumb it down or spell it out, which is both nice and frustrating. This way of dealing with a plot, however, leads to further enrichment through re-reads, as the reader notices things, now that they know the ending, which points to the revelation at the end. It’s called foreshadowing, and Jones uses it well. Fire and Hemlock is the perfect, and perhaps best, representation of this style of Jones.
This is one of those books that people either love or hate. I love not only the story, but the thinking put into it, the representation of writing and of the thought process of the writer that it gives. Other people might not like it: it’s too slow, too complicated, too…whatever. I don’t usually like slow plots, but this one is almost delicious in its slowness. It’s nice to just soak it all in and enjoy it.
Cover Art 2 (I rather like this one)
Another thing that people might not enjoy is the age difference between Polly and Tom. It gets especially sketchy considering Polly is ten when they first meet. But Jones deals with this masterfully, in my opinion. There is that slow build-up, from friendship, to a crush (and Jones makes sure to show Tom’s reluctance), and finally to acknowledgement of feelings when Polly is older. The development is so good that the reunion is nothing but sweet. Really, it’s no different from reading an Austen novel, age-wise.
What I Didn’t Like:
The ending is a tad confusing. I was left unsure of what had happened, but happy that it seemed to have worked out all right. Or did it? It’s a bit up in the air. I believe that it is supposed to be happy, but, again, it’s…complicated.
Fire and Hemlock is quite a bit different from other Jones’ fantasies, and, in my opinion, it is an excellent display of pacing, style, development, and resolution and how these combine to form a fantastic book. It’s a book that needs to be read slowly and thought about while reading. However, it’s so different from some of her other books that it may very well either be (one of) your favorite(s) or (one of) the one(s) that you most dislike.