Fire and Hemlock

by Diana Wynne Jones
ages: 12+
First sentence: “Polly sighed and laid her book face down on her bed.”

A while back, I asked for suggestions for fairy tale adaptations. Mostly because I wanted something new to read for the Once Upon a Time challenge, and (having read many of them), I was running out of ideas. I’d read most of the ones that were suggested, but Nymeth and Kailana both suggested this one. How could I refuse to read it?

Those two ladies do know what they’re talking about. It’s an amazing fairy tale retelling. It’s based on two British tales, Tam Lin (that’s actually Scottish) and Thomas the Rhymer, neither of which I’d heard of before (quick Googling got me up to speed, sort of…). But, I found that it didn’t matter that I didn’t know the source material. The novel took itself in interesting directions, not the least of which was the format (divided up into four movements, each with a music tempo assigned to it). I was hooked.

Polly, at age 19, is packing to go back to college when she stumbles across a book she’d never seen before. Except, upon reading it, she thinks she had. But, it was different before… and she can’t quite remember. Until, thinking back, she remembers a funeral she crashed at age 10, the place when she met Tom Lynn, a cellist. Tom and Polly took an immediate liking to one another, and they began to play a game of “pretend”, Tom was Tan Coul and Polly was Hero, and both were heroes-in-training. It all sounds innocent, except for Mr. Leroy and his son Seb who are constantly lurking about threatening Polly, warning her that any involvement with Tom will lead to disaster.

It’s a sweeping novel, not just in time — it covers, on and off, about nine years — but in scope. There’s intrigue, romance, life, danger, excitement, pain… you name it, it’s in there (except for, perhaps, the really really dark stuff…). I liked the use of magic in the book, too. It’s there, but it’s so understated, that it takes you quite a while to figure out what it is, and how it’s being used. I suppose, if I was being totally fair, that the dark figures didn’t do much besides lurk and smirk, and that the heroic figures were posturing more than doing, but I found I didn’t really mind. I liked Polly (especially the younger Polly) and her relationship with Tom; I’m not sure I totally bought that it evolved into romantic love, but I liked the way they played off each other.

Then there was the bookishness of it all. Tom took to sending Polly books for a good portion of the book, and, wonderfully, they are all real. So, at the end when Polly figures everything out, and she uses the Oxford Book of Ballads to help her, I found myself intrigued, and checked at the library. Sure enough: it’s a book, and I’m looking forward to reading both Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer, if only to say that I have.

9 thoughts on “Fire and Hemlock

  1. Hooray! I can’t tell you how happy it makes me when another person discovers and falls for this treasure of a novel. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Melissa. Loved your review.


  2. I am so glad that you enjoyed this! Now I want to reread… lol It’s really one of the best fairy tale tellings out there.

    If you want to read novel versions of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer; I suggest Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner and Tam Lin by Pamela Dean.


  3. I read this last year I think as Nymeth set it for our challenge. I am glad you enjoyed it as much as I did and I hope you do read Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer. I will definitely be reading more by Wynne Jones in the future.


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