Book talk: Fire and Hemlock

I like stumbling on books. Sometimes this is in the form of picking up something at random at the library or the book store and being pleasantly surprised. Sometimes it’s in the form of a recommendation online – I read about something I find interesting, check it out, and it turns out to be amazing.

A few weeks ago I ended up reading this thread  on Seanan McGuire’s twitter about women urban fantasy writers. Happily, I’d actually read most of the books she recommended, but one stood out as a book I had never heard of: Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones. I had heard of Jones, but never had the opportunity to read any of her books.

That was about to change.

First I checked my local library, figuring that I’d easily be able to find an older book via those channels. Nope. Not digitally, nor in print, and this is a massive library system of multiple branches. I had to look online, and happily found the newest edition with an introduction by Garth Nix, another author whose books I’d enjoyed. I bought it in print because I do prefer to read in print, plus it was actually cheaper than the e-version.

When the book arrived, I was surprised by the heft in the package. Had I ordered the hardcover instead? I opened it surprised at the thickness of the volume.

Fire and Hemlock cover being held by my handI posted a picture on twitter, and I got a lot of comments from fans of the book. This was clearly a book that meant a lot to people, and for a moment I was worried that I wouldn’t like it, or that it wouldn’t speak to me in the same way. I’ve often read a book, typically a YA novel, that might have meant a lot to me if only I had read it when I was a teenager, but as an adult, it didn’t work for me.

So, Fire and Hemlock. I cracked it open on a Saturday morning in the doctor’s office, waiting for my allergy shot. By the next evening, I had finished all 438 pages of it, plus the afterward included for the first time in this volume where Jones discusses her influences in writing it.

I can see why this book means so much to so many people. The protagonist, Polly, is a young woman caught up in heartbreaking circumstances – her parents are divorcing, her mother is a narcissist and her father is uninvolved. But her parents’ divorce and other adolescent problems pale in comparison to the magical battle she is pulled into. I won’t say any more, because of the key joys of this novel is that you don’t completely understand what is going on until the very end.

In that respect it reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the end of the Lane since they both involved childhood memory, and the ending of both made me want to return to the start and read it all again knowing what was going to happen.

It’s the kind of Urban Fantasy I like to think of defines the genre – the magic exists around the fringes of the real world. That alley just might be a portal to fairyland, or that really tall guy in the grocery store might actually be a giant. But there’s this level of disbelief – is it all actually happening, or is it nothing more than the dreams of a child?

I highly recommend this book and I can’t wait to read more of Jones’ work.

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