What it is, pretty clearly, is a reworking of the legends of Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin in present day England (remembering always that the book was written in the mid-1980’s; “present day” has changed quite a lot since then). So we’ve got a Faerie Queen, and a man bound by her, and the plucky girl who is going to free him. (This isn’t a spoiler; we know she has to, because of narrative causality.)
In general, I really like Jones’ work. I’ve reviewed many of her books over the last couple of years, and haven’t found any out-and-out clunkers. Nor is Fire and Hemlock and out-and-out clunker. But I confess I found it slow to get started, occasionally tedious, and not particularly satisfying. The ending was particularly opaque to me. Which is to say, I know more or less what happens, but the logic of it eluded me completely.
I might be in a minority. The re-issue I read has an introduction by author Garth Nix, where he goes on and on about how this is his favorite of Jones’ books. He lists others that he likes (all of which I like as well), and he talks about how he re-reads this book every so often and how he always finds new stuff in it. I can well believe this.
I can well believe this, because this re-issue ends with an essay by Jones on just how she constructed the beast. And it turns out that Jones is not one of those authors who just starts with a neat opening scene, and then follows the characters to find out what happens. No, she’s the sort of author who constructs every little bit of the story to a carefully-defined plan. And it turns out that she’s not just building in Thomas and Tam, she’s building in the entire range of European folklore and adding several heaping dollops of T.S. Eliot. (Yes, I know I just mixed a metaphor. I did it on purpose, because turn-about is fair play.)
Now, I’m impressed by authors who can do such layered, detailed, multi-faceted work. But in this case, I think maybe she let love of her subject carry her a little way overboard. Or possibly I’m just a little too straightforward, I dunno.