When I first picked up Fire and Hemlock, a novel by the "queen of the fantastic" Diana Wynne Jones, I expected something very similar to Howl's Moving Castle, the only other Diana Wynne Jones book I have read. I ended getting something quite different--in fact, something unlike any other book I have read--and I liked it. A lot.
Fire and Hemlock, a retelling of the ballads Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer, follows Polly Whittacker, 19 years old and a little confused. You see, Polly has two memories. In one, her life is fairly normal and uneventful. In the other, she mistakenly wanders into a funeral and meets the peculiar, mild-mannered cellist Thomas Lynn.
Fire and Hemlock is largely a coming of age story. It details the course of Polly's strange, often heartbreaking life from the age of ten to 19. Polly is relatable from the very beginning, and she is no useless crybaby protagonist--she is brave and smart, an ideal hero-trainee.* The other characters in Fire and Hemlock are equally interesting. Not a single one feels underdeveloped (though I would have liked to see Tom's quartet get more screen time) and all are more then they appear to be on the surface.
The atmosphere of this book is amazing. Fire and Hemlock is extremely mysterious, so mysterious that for the first three quarters of the book I had no idea why such strange things were happening. While the book is set in 1980's England, and feels similar to modern day, a subtle but a potent magical atmosphere clings to its pages. Also, as to be expected with Diana Wynne Jones, this book is both witty and humorous. A real winner.
My only complaint is that this book is rather confusing. There are so many details and layers that it becomes a little overwhelming, and I know for sure I didn't catch everything. I think that this is a book you'd have to read several times to truly understand.
To conclude, Fire and Hemlock is a unique, thought-provoking fantasy that has a most mysterious quality in that it exists HERE NOW, NOW HERE, and NOWHERE.**
*Why don't you just read the book?
**I'm not going to repeat myself. READ IT!