My Favorite Subgenre: Fire And Hemlock

{This is one of a series of posts on historical fantasy romance; earlier episodes have talked about Mairelon the Magician and The Enchanted Chocolate Pot.}

Although I’ve been a fan of Diana Wynne Jones from way, way back, I am still finding books of hers I haven’t read. She has so many! One of these was the strange, thought-provoking Fire and Hemlock, which has both one of my favorite and one of my least favorite plot devices.

Favorite Plot Device: Blurring Fact and Fiction

I love when stories cross lines between what is real and what is fictive. I loved it in Sophie’s World and I loved it in this book as well. And nobody can capture that eerie moment where the world feels capable of coming apart better than Diana Wynne Jones. Things move very fluidly here between legends and modern London, between Polly’s buried set of memories with Tom and her surface set of memories without him. Stories that Polly and Tom write to each other start coming true, which is just plain eerie, and it’s not immediately clear what’s happening or how dangerous it may be.

At times this makes it hard to predict what’s going to happen and how obstacles are going to be overcome—but I am almost always more comfortable when I either know what’s going to happen or have read a story before. Movies, too, unless they are clearly following a formula, often take a second viewing for me to get beyond the mechanics of plot and into the shape of the narrative. (I’m looking at you, Joel and Ethan Coen.) The first time through, except in very rare cases, I’m always more concerned about what’s going to happen than in why something is happening.

This may well be a fault of mine as a reader/viewer, but that’s another story.

There were times during my reading of Fire and Hemlock where I wasn’t sure if I was enjoying myself. The threats are keenly rendered and vivid, while our main character Polly spends much time out of her depth and struggling to get by. Another readerly fault of mine: if I can tell something really, truly, appallingly bad is going to happen to a character I’ve come to like, I may just put the book aside, never to return. (I’m looking at you, Brenda Vantrease’s The Illuminator.) I’m not going to sit through torture unless there’s a good reason.

And one of the things that bugged me? Age difference in a romance.

Least Favorite Plot Device: You Watched Me Grow Up, Now Let’s Make Out

Polly meets Tom when she’s a kid, and when she’s sixteen she realizes she’s fallen in love with him. Tom, quite rightly, is a little squicked out—plus there’s a whole deal with his ex-wife who’s superhumanly evil and still has some mysterious but powerful control over his life. It’s all a bit much for a romance—though to be fair, I’m not quite sure if this book qualifies as a romance, based on certain ambiguities in the ending. I imagine the ending is happy—but then, given a choice, I always imagine an ending is happy, so that does not say much about the book one way or the other. Polly and Tom—spoiler!—are victorious over their enemies, but this frees them up to start exploring the issues between them, rather than resolving said issues.

I’m getting off-track. What I’m trying to say: unless a couple has grown up together, or they meet when both are adults, I find age differences can really cast doubt on a romance for me. This is partly why it’s so funny when Buster Bluth hooks up with his mother’s best friend Lucille 2 on Arrested Development (Lucille Bluth: “She changed him as a baby!”), and it’s partly why the delightful Tumblr Reasoning with Vampires finds so much to criticize about the Twilight saga (he’s a century old and still hangs out in high school?). Smart Bitches, Trashy Books just recently did a whole discussion on age differences, with a lovely and spoileriffic comments thread worth the perusing.

Ultimately, the more I think about Fire and Hemlock, the more I am pleased with it. It’s a dark, rich mystery of a book, with some excellent character studies and plenty of honest emotion. Highly recommended if you want something extraordinary and challenging to shake up your reading list.

{Next up on My Favorite Subgenre, we’ll discuss Amanda Quick’s Arcane Society series and especially the first book, Second Sight.

Disclaimer: I have recently joined the Partner Program at Powell’s Books, and so clicking on some of the book links on this blog may in fact lead to me receiving benefits, such as credits to buy more books from Powell’s. But I think we can all agree this is a good thing.}

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4 thoughts on “My Favorite Subgenre: Fire And Hemlock

  1. The isssue with this book is Diana never clarified Tom’s exact age. All we know is it’s older than Polly, but it’s implied that it isn’t too much older.

  2. He did have an ex-wife by the time she was in the equivalent of high school, though, so I worry.

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