Fire and Hemlock (SPOILERS)

Ika blake at gaudaprime.co.uk
Tue May 18 16:25:02 EDT 2004


[Edit: Damn. I wrote this post in Word and I've just logged in to send it
to see Dorian's written another long post - but I'm sure it'll give me
something to think about while I'm away, so not damn, really]

Bounce. Thanks to Hallie, Dorian and Allison for some really
thought-provoking comments, and to Minnow for encouraging me (thusly, in
reply to Hallie):

>>So what don't you like about it?
>
> Yes, please?  Last time you told us what the whole trouble with something
> was it was fascinating.

to respond to Hallie's and Dorian's question, which I've been pondering
over the last few days. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to ponder it
while reading the book, as my girlfriend (prompted by me hanging over her
going "Why don't we like Polly and Tom, darling?") has nicked my copy and
is currently immersed in it, emerging from time to time to explain volubly
why she hates the "Sentimental Drivel" letter. But I'm off to a conference
tomorrow, so I thought I'd better try and get something down before I
totally forgot. It's been fun thinking about it, though - one of the
things that really struck me was that every time I came up with a
generalization ("I don't like the ones with a female protagonist"; "I
don't like the ones set in this universe") I would immediately come up
with a counterexample ("but I love Time of the Ghost!"). I do think,
though, that many of the good things in F&H are done *better* in other DWJ
novels (for my money, Hexwood is like a better second version of F&H - it
feels like a more successful metaphor for the creation jinx than the more
literal version in F&H, and I think the relationship between the different
versions of reality is clearer and better handled).

For me the main thing is - well, Hallie mentioned

> the most gloriously complex layering of myth, legend, fairy tale,
> literary allusions - oh my!

and my first reaction was that it feels like a muddled book, not a complex
one, to me. For me, its various dimensions or layers - Polly dealing with
her double memories; the discovery of the reality of the Tam Lin legend;
the things-coming-true jinx - are pulling against each other throughout
the book (I suspect this is why the ending feels so all-of-a-sudden to me,
as well, because it deals with so many different things all at once), and
it leaves me feeling vaguely unsatisfied. I feel like the different
layers/ strata of reality aren't differentiated clearly enough. I guess I
think that the basic premise relies on a fairly rigid separation between
the magical dimension and the usual world - it's *either* Nowhere or Now
Here, Tom Piper's giant is *either* a giant *or* a huge lunatic, not
everyone knows about Laurel (which is how she keeps her power) - but that
separation just doesn't hold in the narrative of the novel. How does Polly
just know how to do such powerful magic? Why doesn't Nina? (Argh! This is
really hard to explain.) It's just that the novel seems to be arguing
*simultaneously* that our world is full of magic which is accessible and
unsurprising to any small girl who comes across it *and* that the magical
dimension is entirely hidden and unexpected to ordinary people. Usually
DWJ's real-world/magic novels have some sort of gadget or McGuffin that
explains how the magic intrudes on the "real" world - in Hexwood there's
the Bannus, in TotG there's the Monigan-worship, in Ogre there's the
chemistry set. I think the lack of one in F&H points to a deeper confusion
about the place of magic in the novel's world.

I also think - and this might be related - that F&H is oddly specific in
its realism. I think it's the only DWJ novel that actually names real-life
bands (as opposed to, f'rex, Indigo Rubber), and I have to admit that I
twitch and start shouting "*The* Doors!" whenever it refers to "Doors". So
that's part of why I can't ever quite relax into believing in the world in
the novel - it's attempting a level of specificity in its realistic
setting that it doesn't quite manage, even before the aforementioned
confusion.

Dorian cited:

> the way I can see how
> Polly-the-child-and-teenager
> becomes Polly-the-student,

which is one of the things that just doesn't work for me. Again, I think
the novel is set in too many different milieux for me - I feel like Polly
gets growed-up because the love story requires her to have reached a
certain age and level of independence, but (to me, at least, and this
might have something to do with the age at which I read this - but no, I
still prefer books where the child characters and the adult characters are
firmly differentiated from each other) it's too wrenching to go in the
same book from being a smallish girl to a mid-teenager to a student. I
mean, she is recognizable from age to age, I agree, but... it just feels
like the novel shifts genre, that the reader is expected to bring a
different set of knowledges and expectations to bear as she is expected to
stop identifying with a 10yo and start identifying with a 19yo.

And finally, I'm afraid, I don't like the relationship between Polly and
Tom (I should probably declare my interest here - I have a girlfriend who
is way older than me in manner of Tom, and we fell in love over a period
of years through trading children's books and commenting on each other's
fiction in manner of Tom and Polly, and now we like to quack indignantly
to each other about how much better we managed the age difference* than
Tom and Polly - though we didn't meet till I was in my mid-20s, which
makes it a lot easier). But... oh, I don't know. I think the obvious
problems with the age gap tend to be addressed in little detachable,
throwaway moments - like the bit where Tom comes to see Polly's Gran and
she decides she approves of him, so he's allowed to go on seeing her; or
when Tom has that line about how he tried not to rely on Polly to save him
- rather than being an organic part of the changing dynamic between them.
That's sort of what I mean about how Polly being growed-up in order to
suit the structural demands of the love story. And I think it's kind of
weird how Tom is actually a more functional *parent* figure than most of
the parents/guardians in DWJ. For the first half of the book, he's
teaching her (with the books) or rebuking her or caring for her in a
particularly adult way - and, oddly for DWJ, in a responsible,
teacherly/fatherly way. The child/adult line is actually drawn more
sharply and conventionally between Polly and Tom at the start than it is
in any other DWJ book, which makes the switch to Polly-as-adult more
difficult for me to swallow. Apart from the romantic element (I *don't*
think there's anything romantic in the Cat/Chrestomanci relationship, for
a wonder <g>), I actually think that Charmed Life is a much better version
of the transition from authority-figure/child relationship to a
relationship of equals - partly because Chrestomanci *isn't* as good a
parent-figure as Tom to start off with (also, Chrestomanci actually
occupies a position of authority so the rebukes and lessons and sarcasm
come about more naturally).

Oh my God, I've gone on and on. Sorry about that. Um - just before I head
off for this conference, I should say that

(a) formulating it all like this makes me sound a lot more negative than I
actually feel about F&H, which I think is a very good book (just not *as*
good as most other DWJs);

(b) there's tons of things I *like* about F&H. Just off the top of my head
and briefly: all the characters are fantastic (especially the quartet, as
Hallie said, and I also think Laurel's a *great* villain); there's a lot
of girl-girl relationships (Polly and Nina, Polly and Fiona, Polly and her
Gran) which always seem quite rare in DWJ so I like it when they show up;
Polly galumphing off to save her Tom is splendid; Ivy is another great
villain, the encounter with her dad in Bristol is one of my all-time
favourite bits of DWJ, and I love all the similes for emotion (bleach!
ping-pong balls on fountains!).

And (c) it's been *fascinating* hearing what other people see in it, and
when I wrestle it back off my girlfriend I shall bear all these insights
in mind. I especially liked Hallie saying:

> learning to be able to disregard
> what other people might think, or not letting it dictate your behaviour
> at least, learning to balance compassion and empathy for others with
> what you need to do, the willingness to admit that you've made a mistake
> and try to do what you can to rectify it

and Dorian saying:

> the way the other characters are first
> presented
> as being however Polly sees them, but you begin to see them as individuals
> who are not just what Polly (initially) thinks they are, the way they all
> have silly complicated half-understood *real* motives for their
> behaviour...

and Allison's thing about

> Usually people are
> so busy saying not to let your imagination run away with you
> or that it's all in your head or to live in the real world,
> or any number of irritating and uninteresting things. <snip>
>
> The whole idea gives a sense of
> empowerment that your ideas have an effect on the world.

Love, Ika

PS: Dorian asked:

> (BTW, how do you pronounce your name?  I'm thinking EE-ka; is that right?)

<falls off chair in shock> That *is* right! Wow - most people who see it
written quite understandably pronounce it to rhyme with Riker (Star Trek).
I've taken to telling people it's short for Ulrika (which it isn't).

-- 
"Isto was not legal. This is confused. I could make melhor" - Diana Wynne
Jones on TV, as translated from the Portugese by babelfish
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