So I have three favourite books by Diana Wynne-Jones, Hexwood, The Merlin Conspiracy and Fire and Hemlock, though all for different reasons. Hexwood confused child-me (in a good way), and even though I reread it later and found it not at all that challenging, it still pleased me from having had that impression… probably because it was the first non-chronological book I ever read. The Merlin Conspiracy is probably her longest novel, and I read it at a time when “length of book” was one of the most important criteria I had for judging quality… it also introduced me to some Welsh mythology and names (albeit briefly) and some fun magic, driven by a smart little girl. But Fire and Hemlock was one I never really understood why I loved it, I just did. I read it several times over – because child me read a lot more than adult me does, and so ran out of books very quickly – and never really got why it just clicked.
To be honest, I still don’t, but I still love it. I can point to individual cool things it does and say that they are cool, but something about the whole is still captivating to me, and I’m buggered if I can tell you why. Such is life.
I suppose, like The Merlin Conspiracy, this introduced me to some different folklore that I’d not come across before… it was probably my first experience of literature drawing on the evil fairies stealing men sort of tropes, and it specifically draws on two literary sources – The Ballad of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer – to paint this picture. This is a trope I’ve liked every time I’ve encountered it subsequently, though I think in nearly everything I’ve read that covers it, it’s done less well… I’m thinking here things like Tithe by Holly Black, and the Dresden Files series, though it does also crop up in A Foxglove Summer, done rather better. And I don’t just mean any fairies in modern literature, I’m specifically talking about a particular strand of that (because there are plenty of fun modern fairies, like in Mike Shevdon’s works)… and I’m honestly struggling to come up with anything I’ve read that handles it better or more interestingly.
What Jones does is thread the two ballads together, drawing elements from both (but keeping their traditions very strongly visible), while at the same time telling a story that is both very her and very not. It’s definitely aimed higher than most of her work, it’s certainly YA rather than children’s, and while it is full of stylistic points that are very her, it’s also dealing with much more complex and mature topics than is often the case, even in her book about sex terrorists. Which is unique in my DWJ reading too.
I suppose this is what it is, it’s one of her books most grounded in something that exists in the world, and the one with the most mature outlook toward life, and particularly interpersonal relationships. The relationships the main character has with everyone, her parents, her friends, her grandmother, and the strange man she meets at a funeral in her childhood, are all fraught in some way with problems, and we watch someone grow from childhood navigating difficult relationships. Sometimes she fails, but she fails in ways that endear her to us all the more, because she’s ultimately both kind and clever, and tries her best to do what she can with both of those. She sees the flaws in people, even her mother, and tries to work to support the gaps that exist, without ever denying that they’re there. There’s also quite a lot of unresolved sadness in those relationships, so you end up caring terribly what happens to her, because life has thrown a lot her way, and she’s not quite dealt with it all exactly right. But there are two relationships that, for all their troubles, seem actually to be worthwhile for her, and both are interesting to read in their own ways.
Polly and her grandmother is just… comforting. Her grandmother is the sort of character DWJ writes quite well, the ageing but powerful woman who will get her way goddamnit and is ultimately a force for good. There’s one in The Merlin Conspiracy too and I love her. She’s the one who rescues Polly when her parents fail her completely, and she’s the one who provide solidity and sense and logic, while trying to scare off the demons around them both. What’s interesting about the relationship is that the book only reveals a lot of what the grandmother has done rather late on, and so you end up looking backwards and rethinking much of what you’ve seen.
The other relationship is one I shouldn’t spoil, but is between Polly and the mysterious stranger she meets at a funeral. It’s the strongest thread throughout the book, and the most interesting, because it’s so hard to define what they are to one another. It’s not a childish friendship, but nor is it quite familial either, nor again the mentor/pupil one often finds in fantasy novels. It’s somehow all of these and none, and several other things besides. And it’s not without problems – which are acknowledged both by the author and the characters – so we know not to take it always as the best thing it could be, but it looks those problems squarely in the face, and I think handles them in a far more adult way than most YA novels manage.
I suppose that’s my main and abiding praise – it’s a book with such a sensible and mature outlook… it avoids the sop and romance that I find in a lot of YA, and which often has questionable morality… but without avoiding the sentiments underneath.
That makes it sound rather dull, but I think the mood I’m in today is one that cares deeply about how the book deals with people. On another day, I’d focus my praise on the way it twines the fantastic into reality so seamlessly, so it’s plausible without being mundane, and manages to handle magic and memory in a very skilful way.
I think I’m happy to say that I’d count this as DWJ’s best book. It’s the one I’d most likely recommend to an adult who’d never read any of her work before, though I’m sufficiently full of nostalgia that I don’t know how well that would work. I’d hope well, though. DWJ gets a lot of love she thoroughly deserves, and I’ve read very little by her that I haven’t enjoyed, but this is so wonderful in its own little way that I think it deserves more appreciation than I’ve ever really seen it get. I will no doubt continue to reread it periodically, and I don’t think I’m ever going to stop loving it, while at the same time I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand that love either. I guess that mystery is probably a considerable part of the charm.