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.}

Historical Fantasy: The Enchanted Chocolate Pot

The lovely authors at the Enchanted Inkpot have a recent post up that explains the difference between urban fantasy, high fantasy, historical fantasy, paranormal, magical realism, and reality-based fantasy. It's a handy little cheat-sheet, and it's a perfect link to open today's post about one of my favorite recent works of historical fantasy: Sorcery and Cecelia: Or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. I tried to read this book as a teenager once I'd discovered Patricia Wrede's other books, but somewhere in the first chapter I stalled out. At the time I hadn't read much in the way of Georgette Heyer either, and La Heyer is the clear precursor to this wonderful little gem of a novel. That influence is clear in both the lightness of the language and in both Kate and Cecelia's spunky and strong-willed natures.

It's one of the more unusual novels in terms of structure: not only is it epistolary, and takes the form of a series of letters from one heroine to another, but it was written via letters between the two authors, with only a few conversations about timing and nothing about how the two separate plotlines were going to work out. And yet the book feels unified, connected by the characters' shared history and affection and proffered pieces of advice to one another.

This story is a perfect example of how limitations on a story can work to a book's benefit—the result of two talents working together to create something greater than the sum of its parts. The fact that neither author knew the end of the other's story means the questions our heroines ask and the advice they give is realistic and relatable. The men are a bit of a mystery, as we never see inside their heads—but that just adds to the charm of the old-fashioned Regency romance vibe.

I also highly recommend the second in the series, The Grand Tour, and I have the third as a used hardback on my TBR pile.

I have never been more glad to give a novel a second chance.

{Next up: the brilliance of Diana Wynne Jones and specifically Fire and Hemlock.}

My Favorite Subgenre: Mairelon The Magician

We here at Olivia Waite love to use twelve words when three would do the trick. It's a fault, but it's our fault, and one that we probably will not shed without great effort. But at times, it's hugely inconvenient.

For instance, when we want to define the kind of romances we love reading more than any other, we have to fall back on the term historical fantasy romance because it is pleasantly concise. If pressed for more detail, though, we can explain more precisely that we love books about magic set in otherwise normal areas of past history, quite usually the 19th century, and quite usually London or other parts of the British Empire. With love stories.

And for this taste, there is only one book to blame: Mairelon the Magician by Patricia C. Wrede. I consider this book a romance, though the romance plot is really mostly contained in the sequel, The Magicians's Ward. The first book grabbed me as a kid and never once let go: it's got a cross-dressing heroine from the lower classes, a thief, who would do just about anything to get away from the terrifying underbelly of London. Even break into the wagon of a disreputable magic-user, who turns out to be a disgraced member of the aristocracy (and incredibly powerful magician) on the lam as he tries to find the real thief of a powerful set of artifacts. It's The Fugitive meets Harry Potter meets Georgette Heyer. There's a library break-in scene, a hapless young dandy who gets in over his head, a gruff but soft-hearted manservant—the works.

I've read it more times than I can count, and ever since I've been on the lookout for things just like it. They were few and far between for many years, but lately they've been easier and easier to find. (One more reason to give thanks for the internets.) Over the summer, I'm going to showcase at least one of these books per week, in the hopes that kind commenters will chime in and let me know about more.

{Next week: more Patricia Wrede goodness with Sorcery and Cecelia: Or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot!}