Polly Whittacker is nineteen and preparing to return to college after visiting her grandmother over break. She has a flatmate, a boyfriend, and all of the other things she would expect as a college student. It’s ordinary but it feels like enough.
That is until Polly stares at the picture that’s hung above her bed for as long as she can remember. Here, now, of course, Polly knows that “Fire and Hemlock” is just a photograph of some hay bails burning with a hemlock plant in the foreground. But when she was younger didn’t the picture used to have figures dancing and racing around the fire?
The more Polly remembers about the painting, the more she realizes that her memories of the past ten years aren’t quite right either. She has the ordinary set, the ones she always thought were true. But if she thinks back far enough and hard enough, Polly starts to remember another set of memories from a very different, very not ordinary life.
It all started nine years ago when Polly accidentally crashed a funeral and met an odd cellist named Thomas Lynn. Her friendship with Mr. Lynn took the form of fantastical letters, exchanged books, and one very odd visit to his flat in London. Those memories are easy to hold onto once they start to come back.
But something else happened the last time they met. Something worse. And now, here, Polly knows that she and Tom are inextricably tied together–maybe as friends and maybe as more. But Polly won’t have the chance to figure any of that out unless she can gather her memories and figure out not just how to get back to Tom but how to save him in Fire and Hemlock (1985) by Diana Wynne Jones.
I originally reviewed Fire and Hemlock in 2007 just a few months after I started blogging when I first read the novel. Even a decade later I still think about Polly and Tom all the time and almost since the moment I finished it, this book has held a place as one of my most favorite books of all time.
I read this book again in 2017 and was thrilled to see that it absolutely stands up to closer readings. If you can, get your hands on the edition I like to above–it has one of the best covers this book has ever gotten, includes an introduction from Garth Nix, and features an essay Jones wrote about writing this novel–something she rarely talked about in interviews.
Fire and Hemlock is a retelling of Tam Lin, a meditation on what it means to be a hero, a sweeping romance, and one of the best fantasies you’ll ever read. I still haven’t read all of Jones’ novels, the thought of running out is a bit too depressing so I try to keep a few in my figurative back pocket. But if you have to pick just one to read, consider starting here.
Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough, Entwined by Heather Dixon, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Caraval by Stephanie Garber, Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey, Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge, Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay, Salt & Storm by Kendall Kulper, Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, , The Glass Casket by Templeman McCormick, Beauty by Robin McKinley, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab, The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, The New Policeman by Kate Thompson, Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin, The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel