"Only thin, weak thinkers despise fairy stories. Each one has a true, strange fact hidden in it, you know, which you can find if you look."
'Fire & Hemlock' is a retelling of the ballads 'Tam Lin' and 'Thomas The Rhymer', old Scottish folk stories about young men kidnapped by the fairy queen. It is also a deconstruction of the concept of the hero, and a meditation on what it means to be a hero. It is also both a reading list of classic fantastical literature for children and young adults, as well as a primer on how to critique and think about stories. It's also a delicately told coming of age story, an in-depth character study of a girl growing up and becoming an adult. 'Fire & Hemlock' is a complex and ambitious book that demands much of its young audience, but never talks down to them and rewards readers of any age well.
'Fire & Hemlock' tells the story of Polly, a girl who realises that she has two sets of memories, one entirely mundane, and one in which elements of the fantastical encroach on her life. In the latter, after accidentally gatecrashing a funeral when she was ten years old on Halloween, she meets Tom Lynn, a man who strikes up a friendship with her over their shared love of stories. Over the years, as Polly goes through school and suffers the breakup of her family due to her mother's undiagnosed mental illness and her father's flakiness, she has occasional meetings and exchanges letters with Mr. Lynn, in which the stories they make up seem to take on a life of their own. But in her other set of memories, there's no trace of Tom Lynn or their friendship. As she regains her full set of memories, Polly begins to realise that this is because of something she has done.
It's worth mentioning the aspect of the book most likely to make the modern reader feel uncomfortable. When Mr. Lynn meets Polly, he must be at least 19, and she's 10. While the Famous Five might have been able to have perfectly innocent friendships with adult characters, in the era of stranger danger it's impossible not to have at least some misgivings about this kind of relationship. This discomfort is heightened when you consider that in the ballad, Tam Lin's relationship with Janet or Margaret is explicitly sexual, and depending on the version, not always consensual. There's an extent to which this is a feature rather than a bug in the text; Jones makes sure Mr. Lynn's relationship with Polly is not creepy or sexual, but she does hero worship him and develops a crush on him in her teenage years, and her friends, parents and Granny treat Mr. Lynn with understandable suspicion and warn her off him. The book goes to great lengths to show the shades of grey in Mr. Lynn's character that could be glossed over by Polly's adulation of him, which is developed in accord with how the book treats fairies and magic. In the end it does transpire that Mr. Lynn was using Polly to escape from Laurel the fairy queen, however he does try to drive her away in order to protect her, and it turns out that almost all the characters, with the possible exception of Polly's Granny, have been using Polly in some way or other. Indeed, one of the main themes of the book is how children lack agency, and the story is really about how Polly gains agency over her own actions and what she decides to do with that. Nevertheless, exactly how much of that uncomfortableness in the main relationship is intended by the author is hard to say.
Polly and Mr. Lynn bond through stories, and the stories they share act as a springboard for Jones to explore the main themes of the book. To an extent, 'Fire & Hemlock' is a book about stories and why we tell them; Tom Lynn's curse, in a twist on Thomas the Rhymer's, is not that he can only speak the truth, but rather that all the stories he and Polly make up come true. The mechanism of magic here resembles that in Jo Walton's 'Among Others', a book that is in many ways the spiritual successor to 'Fire & Hemlock', both in the way the Fantastical elements subtly encroach on a realistic coming of age story and in the way it references other books. Jones traces Polly's emotional growth through the books that Mr. Lynn sends her, from fairy tales through to Dumas, Tolkien and beyond, and the books also form a series of clues that allow Polly to realise that Mr. Lynn is owned by the fairies. By the end of the book she is so steeped in fairy tales and how they work that she is able to use this knowledge to save Mr. Lynn from having his life taken to sustain Laurel.
Polly and Mr. Lynn also exchange stories that they have written, about their fictional exploits as trainee heroes living secret lives in the town of Stow-on-the-Water. These stories basically act as a crash course in literary criticism and writing, as Mr. Lynn encourages Polly to think more deeply about the way she constructs her stories, from avoiding sentimentality and wish fulfillment to encouraging original thought. They also act to foreshadow and symbolise events in the real story. Beyond being clever, the way they encroach on reality is thoughtfully handled. Polly and Mr. Lynn find out that characters Polly had imagined as one-dimensional villains become more pleasant and likable when forced to manifest as an actual person with depth; there is a truth here about Polly's simplistic childish view of the world at the beginning of the novel contrasted to the actual complexity of lived life.
The stories also tie into the key theme of the novel, heroism. Much of the novel is Polly discovering what it really means to be a hero. From the first stories she makes up when she meets Mr. Lynn, we see that Polly is enamored with the idea of heroism. She imagines a hero as someone who is strong and who fights giants and monsters. In her initial hero worship of Mr. Lynn, she casts him as the hero of her story, with herself as his assistant, although from the beginning Polly has aspirations to heroism, as she describes herself as a learner hero. As she goes through school and her parents' messy breakup, she begins to see being a hero as something she could maybe one day do, and starts training for it physically by joining the boys' football team and setting herself tasks running around everywhere. During this period she beats up the school bully, which makes her into a hero at her school, but she is forced to question the genuineness of her heroism, as she didn't actually do it for heroic reasons. Polly comes to understand that one's reasons for doing things are important, and that violence isn't going to solve all problems. By the end of the book, she has come to understand that her actions have consequences, through making a mistake that could have doomed Mr. Lynn, and discovers that true heroism comes from intelligence and cunning as much as physical strength, and frequently means sacrificing what you want in order to save someone. It is a powerful lesson because it is so hard earned; Jones does not let Polly escape without getting her hands dirty.
A lot of the charm of 'Fire & Hemlock' stems from how it's told. The story starts off rooted in the mundane, a technique which makes the fantastical elements all the more wondrous and frightening as it slowly encroaches over the course of the book. The story is never rushed, allowing Jones the time to fully explore Polly's character as she develops, with a series of quite charming vignettes about school life and growing up that ring true because of how well grounded all the characters are, from Polly's school friends Nina and Fiona to Laurel the fairy queen and her consorts, Morton Leroy and his snotty son Seb. The book is split into sections named after musical movements, which speed up as the tension increases throughout the novel. Jones manages to make the book compulsively readable and an utter joy, despite going to some pretty dark places. This is not just in the horrifying fairy host gearing up to feed on a human life, but also in its nuanced portrayal of Polly's suffering at the hands of her neglectful parents.
Much as Mr. Lynn's curse is a twist on Thomas the Rhymer's, Polly frees Mr. Lynn from the clutches of the fairies not by clinging on to him, as Janet or Margaret do in 'Tam Lin', but by letting him go. The ending is ambiguous and open to interpretation, which is unusual in a novel aimed at younger readers. This is how I read it. Because Morton Leroy hurt Mr. Lynn, which is against the rules of the contract, Laurel lets Mr. Lynn and Morton Leroy challenge each other, with the loser forfeiting their life in order to sustain Laurel. Mr. Lynn is allowed to use anything that is truly his, but the catch is that Morton Leroy will be able to use it more powerfully. So in order to save Mr. Lynn's life, Polly has to spurn him, when all she wants is to be able to be part of his life again. Polly's actions save Mr. Lynn and doom Morton Leroy, but she cannot go back on what she's said afterwards or Laurel will be able to claim Mr. Lynn. The book ultimately is about heroic sacrifice, and loving someone enough to let them go. This is foreshadowed by Polly's role in the school play as Pierrot, destined to lose the object of their affections. The clue to the ending is in the magical vases inscribed 'NOW HERE' and 'NOWHERE'. If they are unable to spend the present together, at least they now have the past. Polly's actions have removed the spell Laurel cast, allowing Polly to keep her true memories that include Mr. Lynn, and they will both be able to go on through life knowing that they both have that other person out there who truly, profoundly cares about them, even if they are unable to do anything about it.