Diana Wynne Jones used to be one of my favorite authors when I was younger, but for some reason I never actually read Fire and Hemlock or the Howl's Moving Castle books, which might arguably be her most famous due to the Miyazaki move that drew inspiration from, but was not a direct adaptation of, the first of the series. Fire and Hemlock popped up on my radar fairly recently when I read a rather scathing review of Sarah J. Maas' A Court of Thorns and Roses, which is part Beauty and the Beast and part Tam Lin. That reviewer (Nenia Campbell, the review is here) rather thought ACOTAR sucked, and recommended Fire and Hemlock as a Tam Lin retelling in its place. I rather liked ACOTAR, but I've generally found books that Nenia recommends to be excellent, so when I saw this was available as an e-book from the library I was pretty excited.
While I think that this was a well-written book, with everything woven together very well, I would not recommend it for people looking for something similar to ACOTAR. Fire and Hemlock is much more middle-grade than ACOTAR, which is very definitely young adult verging on adult. Fire and Hemlock is set up differently, with Polly trying to figure out why she's suddenly realized she has two sets of memories and what she can do to fix it; much of the book is told in a sort of series of prolonged flashbacks, detailing Polly's "hidden" set of memories. These heavily feature Mr. Lynn, who Polly ran into when she was ten and accidentally crashed a funeral. Their lives got tied together then, and they kept associating with each other. Polly developed feelings for Mr. Lynn which was a weird sort of dynamic because she was fifteen at the oldest when she saw him last, and he was an adult from the very beginning. When she eventually figures out what happens, she goes off to fix it, of course, just as any proper young spunky heroine would. This has a lot of cool fantasy elements to it, but it lacked the one thing I was really hoping to find (and, given Polly's age in the book, this is a good thing): romance.
Here's the thing: ACOTAR is sexy. Fire and Hemlock is not. This is, in reflection, a good thing, because a sexy element in Fire and Hemlock would be very Lolita-esque, which is super super weird and not okay. That said, when the book opened with Polly being nineteen, I thought I was going to be in for a good romance, though not necessarily a steamy one like Maas'. After all, Fire and Hemlock dates to 1985, and Wynne Jones never struck me as a particularly steamy writer to begin with. But I thought there'd be something sweet here, and really, I was a bit befuddled by how the whole thing came together. Because Polly's crush is apparently actually true love, and its reciprocated? Again, the whole age thing just made this super weird for me, and I couldn't really enjoy it as much as I wanted to. I think that, had Polly been older for the duration of the book, this would have worked much better for me even without a strongly-pronounced romantic element. As it was, it just kind of creeped me out a bit. Age-gap romances can have a lot going for them, but not really when one of the participants is ten. Granted, the "romantic" element grows as Polly gets older (she doesn't fall head-over-heels for Lynn from the beginning) but she's still young enough that it's disconcerting.
Diana Wynne Jones is a fantastic author, and I definitely still intend to read the Howl's Moving Castle books, but Fire and Hemlock was not for me. It had some really intriguing elements, like the dual sets of memories, but some of the things (like how Polly always knew what to do "by instinct") didn't convince me and the relationship aspect weirded me out far too much for me to really enjoy the book. The last bit, when Polly was older, was much more comfortable than the majority of it when they were in the flashback phase. It was just kind of icky, even though nothing icky actually happened. I don't know. It just didn't sit well with me. I won't be reaching for this one again.
2 stars out of 5.