Saturday, January 8, 2011

Book Review: Fire and Hemlock

Another of Diana Wynne Jones' many novels and another one I'd had recommended to me. So I picked it up right before my winter break (and had a bit of trouble renewing it over the break)

Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
Normally I would call this a pretty ugly cover because of the muddy colors but this is the titular Fire and Hemlock photograph from the book (well, the cover artist's version of it) so it's actually a really neat idea for the cover.

Summary: Set in modern day (ie, 1980s England) Polly is home from college at break and in her old bedroom when she catches herself staring at an old photograph titled Fire and Hemlock. She thinks about how odd it is that when she was younger she was convinced that the photograph looked differently than it really was but, upon examining her memories to figure out why she thought this, she discovers that she has two sets of memories for many years of her life. One set holds the ordinary memories of day to day life she thought was the truth but the other ones seem to tell a story about legends come to life and she goes back through her memories to figure out just what she did.

The Good: One thing that all of DWJ books do very well is that they have competent adult characters. Many MG/YA authors seem to have a hard time balancing out competent adult characters while still having a young protagonist be the one who knows best. Here you never get the sense that one character is “right” and the other is “wrong,” there are simply characters and each one has flaws. I really liked Polly’s grandmother for being such an important prescience in her life especially as she was slowly disillusioned about her parents and trying to love them anyway (DWJ also gets credit for making divorce a pretty big subplot in a book for children in the 1980s and again she manages to show that Polly’s parents aren’t bad people but deeply flawed ones).The plot also is a nice twisty one that combines old legends with something that is probably magic but not explicitly stated to be so (another staple of DWJ's older works) and it was also nice to read a story where the character ages over course of it (compared to many modern day YA stories that take place over the course of a week, taking place over ten years makes Polly's character growth much more believable). It was a satisfying read and a more interesting take on magical memory loss than your typical "I have amnesia as a plot device" story.

The Bad: There were parts about the ending that I simply did not understand, even after re-reading and spending time thinking about them. One thing about DWJ’s works is that the hero doesn’t normally triumph from winning a big fight or something like that, usually it involves a character’s own resolve and cleverness and that’s what confused me this time around. I think Polly’s triumph had to do with thinking the way the villain wanted her to think but also differently at the same time and that’s just a guess, for all I understood it could’ve been the opposite. So a confusing end is certainly a minus, actually, after the flashbacks end the whole story gets a little confusing. Some of this is a good thing (since our character is dealing with a world that remembers the past differently than the way it really happened) but there are a few things that aren’t explained well enough even when everything is said and done. This is a highly praised book of hers so it’s certainly possible that I just didn’t get something (and it does deal with one or two old English legends that I'm not very familiar with), but if I didn’t get something after a rereading and thinking about it (and this is a YA book, not a piece of literary fiction) then something went wrong.

I’m not sure whether or not I should be happy that the reviewers on Amazon also aren’t sure what to make of the ending. On the one hand, at least I didn’t miss something really obvious, one the other, lovely, now no one can explain it to me! I foresee a reread of this book sometime although I’m not 100% convinced on a buy, there are other stories by her I like more but if I ever happen across a cheap copy of it I’m sure I’d grab it anyway.