Fire and Hemlock (SPOILERS)

Dorian E. Gray israfel at
Wed May 19 15:33:18 EDT 2004

Ika said...

> 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).

Well, *that's* something that never occurred to me!  Though I have to say
here that I have read "Hexwood" much less often than F&H - partly this is
because I got it only a couple of years ago, and partly because I don't like
it as much as many of the others.  But I think I will now have to go and
reread it in light of this comment - once I finish the current "Archer's
Goon" reread, inspired by the 1984 thing, and the Dalemark reread, sparked
by nothing in particular.

Meanwhile, back to F&H...

> 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.

That's an interesting reaction, because I feel that all the layers work
together beautifully, blending and melding and feeding into and out of one
another.  Perhaps you and I have different expectations and desires about
how layering in books should work.

> I feel like the different
> layers/ strata of reality aren't differentiated clearly enough.

Yes, we definitely have different expectations/desires on this point.  I
*like* for layers to blend and not be strongly differentiated, and I think
DWJ does that blending very well in F&H.

> 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.

I'm going to take issue here.  Why do you think the premise *relies* on a
rigid separation?  Because I would have said it's quite the opposite; the
book requires that things *not* be "either/or", and they *are* not
"either/or".  Nowhere and Now Here are in the same place; the giant is both
a giant and a huge lunatic, Laurel is both a rich divorcee and the Queen of

I honestly don't understand why you think things *should* be only one thing
(if I'm interpreting you right).  Even in mundane life, things and people
are many things at once: I am a writer and a configuration manager and a
woman and a live-action role-player and a whole lot more, all at once.  A
pink-tinged contrail at sunset is evidence of a passing plane and a bit of
air pollution and a beautiful sight, all at once.  A coffee mug is a useful
receptacle and a piece of clutter and something that needs to be washed and
a reminder of the person who gave it to me and a whole lot more...and so on.

> How does Polly
> just know how to do such powerful magic? Why doesn't Nina?

Well, as someone else has already pointed out, Polly is connected to the
Leroy family (if somewhat loosely) through her grandfather's being taken by
Laurel.  She's also an imaginative girl, and has been steeped in folk-tales,
fairy-tales and fantasy for about five years before she does that bit of
magic.  And she's been quite a lonely girl in a lot of ways, and to some has
taken refuge in magic and fantasy and what-if.  Nina is a far more
matter-of-fact girl who has clothes and boys and random crazes to occupy her
mind.  Polly has the "advantage" of Thomas Piper Hardware, Sam Rensky the
monster, and so on to show her that magic may be possible; Nina, frankly,
would probably not notice magic if it bit her.  Or, to get short and to the
point - Nina "knows" magic is impossible.  Polly doesn't.

> 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.

Yes.  That's *exactly" the way I see it.  The magic is there for those who
have eyes to see, and never noticed by those who haven't.  I know you don't
much like "Deep Secret" either, but I think the remark in there (apropos of
the wounded centaur in the lift) to the effect that it's surprising what
people will when they don't *want* to admit they're seeing what they're
seeing fits rather well here.

> 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.

Here again, I'm thinking that we are just coming at this from two very
different worldviews/sets of expectations.  I am less fond of McGuffins in
stories than I am of stories where the magic is just there, part of the
world, available to those to accept its existence.

I'm reminded now of something Clive Barker, I think, said in the
introduction to one of Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novels.  It was to the
effect that in some stories/worlds, the weirdness is an invader (he gives
Superman as an example), something that comes from outside the world, but
that Gaiman's is a "far more delirious" variety of fiction, where the
fantastic is blended seamlessly with the mundane.  That is the kind of
real-world fantasy that I like.  I guess it's not the kind that you like.

> I have to admit that I
> twitch and start shouting "*The* Doors!" whenever it refers to "Doors".

Oh well yes, so do I at that point.  Then again, the world is also full of
idiots who think that the 80s group Eurythmics' name is "The Eurythmics",
which it isn't.

> 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,

Hm.  You do have a point here, I think - but on the other hand, I have never
felt that the reason Polly grows up is in order to facilitate the love
story.  To me, it's more like the love story grows out of the fact that
Polly is now grown-up (well, as grown-up as any 19-year-old can be said to

I also think that the story would not work nearly as well - if at all - if
it were told in a straightforward, linear manner.  It *needs* to be told in
chunks of flashback, framed by "now" at both ends, in order to create the
tension.  I think.

> 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.

Well, yes...but given that most of the story is told from Polly's POV and
specifically as her memories, and she never really saw him all that often,
I'm not sure how else that could have been handled.  And there are things
like Polly hugging Tom's arm at the fair (and cringing about it later), and
Fiona pointing out how Tom looked at Polly after the panto and how sick Mary
looked.  I think there are a few hints, at least.

> 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.

Hm.  But I think the perception of Polly as just-a-child is also important
in that a child is not much of a threat, and therefore she can help Tom
(albeit unconsciously at that point) without Laurel immediately copping on.
Of course, Laurel (or Morton) does cop on soon enough, but I think they
still don't pay that much attention to her until later.  Also, I think a
child can give her loyalty more easily and completely than an adult - but
when it comes to saving Tom, that needs an adult who knows what she's doing
and can make her choices with more knowledge of the consequences.

> PS: Dorian asked:
> > (BTW, how do you pronounce your name?  I'm thinking EE-ka; is that
> <falls off chair in shock> That *is* right!

Oh good. :-)

Oof.  So much thinking this evening!  This is being a great discussion!

Until the sky falls on our heads...

Dorian E. Gray
israfel at

"It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
-Wm. Shakespeare, "Macbeth".

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