I tried writing a review, but I just couldn’t. Instead, what came out of me was this incredibly messy and rambly post.
I used to read Fire & Hemlock every year up until a couple of years ago, and I’m not sure why I stopped. I have bought and re-bought this book a few times, because somehow I keep losing it. At the moment I have two versions – the UK version by HarperCollins, and the US Firebird reprint with an introduction by Garth Nix as well as DWJ’s wonderful essay “The Heroic Ideal”. I think this may be my first reading of Fire & Hemlock after having read “The Heroic Ideal” as well as T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets. It makes for an interesting experience, and I certainly recommend both. I thought a lot of things during this reread, but really, most of them have been said before – F&H seems to be the DWJ book with most reviews that I could find, on a cursory Google search – and some of them I’ve said before in previous reviews and comments. In the end, my reaction to this book is largely personal – I pretty much imprinted on Polly when I first read it, and she and Janet (from Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin) are among my very favourite heroes from books.
I grew up with two older brothers who happened to be gamers. Not just any sort – they played Dungeons & Dragons. I never played with them as a kid, but I wasn’t a stranger to playing Let’s Pretend. I’ve watched them play, have read through their notebooks detailing all their campaigns, have scoured through their Dungeon and Dragon magazines. And yet, somehow I had never thought to join in, because D&D and heroism were for boys, just like comics were for boys, never mind the fact that I had more Marvel collectible cards than my brothers, and read through their comics (that I wasn’t supposed to touch) in secret.
And then I read Fire & Hemlock, and Polly came into my life. I started my own Let’s Pretend games with a couple of friends – not quite D&D, but definitely inspired by it since it was where I learned about gaming rules. We came up with our own stories, and when we thought they were good enough, we included them in our zines. And that wasn’t all – Fire & Hemlock made me interested in Tam Lin retellings, which made me pick up Pamela Dean’s book, which had that lovely introduction by Terri Windling. I loved the book and especially adored Janet (which I should write about in a different post, I suppose) but the introduction. It led me to so many new things – retellings, mythic fiction, rediscovering the Bordertown series, which at the time I only vaguely remembered. I owe a lot to Tam Lin and Fire & Hemlock.
(And I just went back and reread my 2008 review of F&H, where I said the same thing. Oops.)
Another thing I got from the book. I keep saying, “I read so-and-so when I was a kid” when most of the time, I meant in my early teens. Before I was about ten or eleven, I didn’t have much to read at home, and I read mostly my mother’s books. She taught literature, so I read stuff like Emma and Heart of Darkness and whatever it was she was teaching. She used to use that against her students – “my 10-year-old understood this, why couldn’t you?” and so on. I don’t know if I really understood; I mean, I was ten. I assumed I did, because my mother asked me questions about them and seemed satisfied by my answers, but I still think that I couldn’t have understood very much, rereading the same books now. Either way, at some point my dad started taking me to the National Library, which was better stocked back then, so I read Dodie Smith and Roald Dahl and Noel Streatfeild, and then moved on to Asimov and Tolkien and the Bordertown books. By then I had reached twelve, the maximum age allowed into the children’s section of the library, so I was barred from entering. Left to my own devices, I read things that were cheap and easy to find at bookstores – mainly Harlequin romances and Sweet Valley Twins books. By the time I was fourteen, Harry Potter became a thing, and bookstores here began to stock Diana Wynne Jones (ironically, they didn’t actually stock up on Harry Potter until a couple of years later).
When I read Fire and Hemlock for the first time, I was first in love with the fact that it was about books and stories and how they make up a person, and then I was envious of Polly who received books from Thomas Lynn all the time. I used to make lists of her books and planned to read them all, except at the time more than half of the books were near impossible to get where I live. These days they’re a lot easier to come by, but I guess that old obsession had faded away. The only time I felt a little like Polly was when my eldest brother came back from the States for his summer holidays, and brought back books for me and my younger sister. We fought over who got which book, and in the end, she took all the picture books, and I took everything else:
* A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle
* The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster & Jules Feiffer
* Kitchen, Banana Yoshimoto
* Falling Up, Shel Silverstein
* Amelia Bedelia, Peggy Parish
* The Polar Express, Chris Van Allsburg
* The Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams
* Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak
* and two books I can’t remember the title of – a picture book illustrated but not written by Sendak, and a non-fiction about UFO sightings
All of these books weren’t sold in local bookstores at the time. I ended up loving all of them, even the one on UFO sightings, which I thought was a weird sort of gift. (Also, I ended up taking all the other Shel Silversteins my brother brought back with him, and his copy of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.) All of them changed me in a different way, which made me think about the books that Polly received from Thomas Lynn. And, I think, that was why I ended up as a Children’s and YA bookseller – the part of me that wanted a book dealer never quite went away, so I ended up becoming one myself. My favourite thing about Christmas and birthdays is choosing the perfect book for someone, and every time I give someone their first Diana Wynne Jones, I’d feel indescribably happy. And every time my regulars come in, and ask what’s new, what are you reading now, anything you think I’d like? I’d think how strange for this to be the perfect place for me, and that in a way, it was Fire & Hemlock that brought me here. I had always loved books, but it was Fire & Hemlock that made me see how powerful stories could be, and set me on the path of sharing this magic with others.
Click here for what I wrote on Fire and Hemlock back in 2008, and see below for actual reviews of the book by others: