I have a confession to make. I hadn't read Diana Wynne Jones until August 2013.
I know! It's shameful! I'd heard about this weird book called Howl's Moving Castle, and though the quirky title appealed to me, I kept putting it off until a friend (*cough cough* Hannah Williams) mentioned that it was worth reading. So I got the cute, leaf-green copy from the library and accidentally read it in one sitting.
It astounded me. It was a hot mess of fairytales, folklore, and good old-fashioned adventure, jam-packed with eccentric characters and the poetry of John Donne. (I love John Donne!) I read the interview in the back of the book and learned that, in addition to two sequels, Diana Wynne Jones planned on writing a fourth Howl book. Excited, I requested both sequels from the library, eager to continue the adventure.
I don't remember when I learned that Mrs. Jones had passed away from cancer two years before. I must've gone to her Wikipedia page one day to check on the status of the new Howl book and seen that there would be no more books coming... The Queen of the Fantastic was gone.
Her books gained a special, bittersweet meaning for me. I finished Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways, and although I was sad to leave Howl, Mrs. Jones had written over fifty books in her life. I read a few others-- Charmed Life, The Dark Lord of Derkholm-- but none of them captured the whimsicality and sweetness of Howl's Moving Castle.
Then I read Fire and Hemlock.
It is not sweet. It is not whimsical. It is hard and tragic and just barely ekes out a happy ending. And it is, I believe, Mrs. Jones's masterpiece.
Polly Whittacker remembers two different lives. In one, she had a perfectly ordinary childhood. But in the other, through a twist of fate she met Tom Lynn, a cellist, who lead her into a world of dangerous secrets. The stakes grew higher as the goal became murkier-- and then, mysteriously, Polly committed a mistake she can't remember and forgot all about Tom and their adventures. She grew up with a normal life until, while reading a book of short stories, the memory of Tom resurfaces. Polly must remember the secrets she knew then to have any hope of saving Tom now-- if she isn't already too late.
I read this last fall, and I distinctly remember sitting on my porch swing, puzzling over the ending, trying to determine if it had been happy or sad. I was left with a lingering feeling of discontent until, for my birthday, I bought the pretty new copy, with an introduction by Garth Nix (who may or may not be featured later on this list) and an afterward by Diana Wynne Jones herself, titled "The Heroic Ideal-- A Personal Odyssey." As I read her detailed explanation of myths, themes, and symbolism, everything became clear, and my love for Fire and Hemlock increased, tempered with admiration.
So do yourself a favor. Get a copy of Fire and Hemlock, read it, and then-- before forming any opinion!-- read Mrs. Jones's essay, which you can find online. You'll thank me later.
Reminder: Comment on any of the favorite books posts to be entered in the favorite books giveaway, where you could win a book of your choice from the list! Entries capped at one per post. You can earn an extra by saying that Hannah from the Writer's Window sent you. And now for tomorrow's hint: what series is several million words long, has sold 44 million copies, and was completed by a rookie author after the original's untimely passing?