Book Review: Thorn Jack by Katherine Harbour

Star Ratings for Thorn Jack

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 and up

Thorn Jack first caught my eye because I liked the title and the skull on the front. But, lest I be accused of judging a book by its cover, I got excited about it for better reasons soon enough. Thorn Jack is supposedly a “modern retelling of the ancient Scottish ballad of Tam Lin,” and I may have mentioned that “Tam Lin” is my absolute most favorite traditional ballad.

Have I mentioned this before? Oh, right; I have trouble shutting up about that magnificent fairy story. In the Spring, I went on a rather obnoxious rant about it, and I’m forever keen to read new interpretations.  (“Thoughts About Ballads: Tam Lin” can be read here.) That’s why this review is so damn long, and I apologize in advance. Thorn Jack looked to be a throwback to my goth-y days of yesteryears, back when I wanted to be a wicked, winged thing and sometimes dressed the part. So if this Katherine Harbour lady felt like throwing in references to fairy legends all over the place, that would be just fine with me.

Before I started reading, though, I gave myself a stern talking-to. It went something like this:

  • Me:”Self, lower those wacky expectations of yours! Remember how unreasonably picky you were about Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin?”
  • Myself: “I remember. Why did she bother to call it Tam Lin when it was mostly Shakespeare homework with bad seventies haircuts and –”
  • Me: “Enough of your complaints, self! You may not have liked Dean’s re-telling, but that’s because you wanted it to be something it was not. All that whining you did about the class schedules and the smugness and the terrible pacing. I mean, yeah, the pacing was quite dreadful. But your silly indignation, when the story didn’t follow the exact pattern you wanted to read, just got out of control. Maybe it wasn’t the re-telling you expected, but you need to dive into books with an open mind, or risk being even smugger than that particular Janet.”
  • Myself: “Fine, fine. Fair enough: I shan’t make that mistake again. Authors can borrow as much or as little as they like from folklore, without needing to justify their choices to little old me. Happy?”
  • Me: “Never. But you may now proceed to give Thorn Jack the old college try.” (Like Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, Thorn Jack is set in and around a secluded college campus.)

 

The story:

Finn and her father have moved from California to Fair Hollow, New York, after her older sister’s suicide. Before she died, Lily Rose was preoccupied with thoughts about fairies and monsters. She collected their stories in her journal, and a little passage from that journal opens up each chapter in Thorn Jack. Lily Rose’s writing helps Finn realize, rather belatedly, that the oddities of her new town might be due to something weirder than just kooky wealthy residents.

Fair Hollow is really rather odd. Shrines of sinister toys and abandoned cakes decorate ruined chapels in the woods. The little girl who reads Tarot cards at Hecate’s Attic (I want to visit that shop, please!) knows way more than she should. Mansions which had once belonged to the rich and famous now lie abandoned and overgrown all over town. Finn’s college campus, HallowHeart, is decorated with elfin carvings and nods to ancient superstitions. When Finn attends a wild outdoor party with her new friends, Christie and Sylvie, she’s surprised to see that a great many people her age dress and speak and act bizarrely. Under the influence of blackberry wine, she follows a dark young man into the woods and thus encounters Jack and Reiko Fata for the first time.

The Fatas pass off as an extended family of wealthy eccentrics, but something about them is just unnerving. Reiko Fata doesn’t just look like royalty – stunning and cold – she acts the part of an imperious Queen all the time. Jack might be handsome and a little scary, but he’s a slave to Reiko’s beck and call. Then there are all the various cousins, the chauffeurs, the adopted siblings, the visiting friends; everyone is beautiful, and no one should be trusted. Finn and Jack start “hanging out” – if that’s what you could call bizarre midnight chats and old films in abandoned cinemas – and draw the attention of Reiko and her cronies. The more time Finn spends with Jack Fata, the curiouser she becomes about the Fatas and their inexplicable lives. With the help of Christie and Sylive, she wants to uncover the truth behind their facade. What’s keeping Jack so beholden to Reiko? Why does her classmate Nathan, adopted into the family, seem so uncomfortable all the time? And who are all these sinister people suddenly popping in and out of town for extravagant parties, threatening Finn and her friends whenever they make a new discovery?

Finn used to disbelieve the myths and legends her father taught. When she first meets Christie, she tells him, “Superstitions are useless and fairy tales are lies.” But three months in Fair Hollow will change her mind, because in this weird town superstitions could the the only thing to save her from a deadly fairy tale ending.

My thoughts:

It helps that this book isn’t specifically called Tam Lin, so readers won’t be so hung up on spotting direct parallels to the ballad right from the beginning. And it definitely is more inspired by the old Scottish story than it is a re-telling.

The Fatas – Thorn Jack’s approximation of the Fairy Court – behaved much in the way the court does in “Tam Lin”, with the pageantry, the mockery, and the sacrifice of a tithe. And some other pieces of the novel stuck to the ballad’s form, too. Finn lives at home with her father; she keeps going to forbidden old estates; and only mortal love can save whomever’s been doomed to act as the tithe. But otherwise the story meanders in other directions. Since I managed to check my expectations at the door, I was able to enjoy most of the book for what it was. It’s a cluttered and crazy salute to centuries of fairy-lore, with immature writing at times, but I had a great time reading it despite the several flaws. Thorn Jack reminded me of my early teenage years, even though all the major (human) characters are college students. I got totally sucked into the preternatural melodrama and I liked playing “spot the fairy” at every party scene.

There are plenty of fantasy stories for both teenagers and adults which show fairies as timeless creatures playing at, or bastardizing, human culture for a bit of fun. Alluring, wicked things straight from hearthside stories pass in and out: a dreamlike parade of old spirits disguised as eccentric young people. So many writers have brought figures out of the mythological imagination and into our modern lives.* Add Katherine Harbour to that list, because Thorn Jack was crowded with phookas, sluaghs, ghosts, tree spirits, etc. The book is almost certainly over-crowded with these characters dropping in and out, but even though the plot suffered for it I was highly entertained by the ever-shifting crowd. They were appropriately terrifying and mesmerizing at the same time, following their own selfish reasoning with no regard for mortals. I thought Harbour did a marvelous job of showing how small human lives were in the eyes of fair-folk; they really mean it when they call Finn and her friends “mayflies.” The Fatas were pretty, they were scary, and they were not of this world. I loved them.

My biggest complaint about Thorn Jack would undoubtably be about the romance between Jack and Finn. It did remain a few steps ahead of the sullen girl falls for dark boy because he’s aloof and hangs out by her window at night disaster-zone, because Jack is meant to be keeping an eye on Finn for more sinister reasons than his own heart. In fact, the concept that mortal love makes fairies grow hearts and bleed was kind of cool, and led to some examples of poetic cruelty between the Fatas themselves. With a knife, Reiko can take “heartless” to a whole new level – a reference to one of my favorite lines of the ballad. But Finn’s attachment to him happened too quickly and it seriously detracted from her own character. And oh, boy, did I get tired of hearing her describe his hands. I know there was enchantment at play, but the path from fascination to love wasn’t followed with enough conviction to justify the clinginess which followed. (Though there’s a moment when clinginess comes in handy at the end of the original “Tam Lin”. Ha ha ha.)

The friendships between other characters felt more believable, even though they also bonded almost instantly out of vague curiosity. Finn meets Christie within the hour of first moving to Fair Hollow, I think, but his rakish ways and grim logic in the face of horrors endeared him to me very quickly. Sylvie, the other member of their trio, is lovably goth, brave, and imaginative. Poor Nathan, all tangled up with the Fatas, is a sympathetic character and it’s easy to understand why Finn wants to help him. And the villains? They were scary as hell.

The majority of the action takes place off of HallowHeart’s campus, but the teachers there were mysterious enough that I hope we’ll see more of them in the future. And, as per the ballad, Finn’s dad was kind and smart but none too observant: the perfect sort of parent character for a story about young people struggling to keep a magical world separate from “real life”. I remember that fierce terror of having grown-ups catch wind of my supernatural concerns when I was a young teenager, and Harbour has managed to capture it very well.

“Ordinary Life had been infected by an otherworldly menace.” (p 245)

Her protagonists are older than I imagine them, but the threat of worlds colliding is very present and very right. Because even when the invisible world is crashing to pieces, you still never wanted to put your parents in danger or let on to your teachers that something was wrong. In this way, the emotional resonance never lagged in Thorn Jack even when the plot got tangled or the romantic tension felt off.

After the exhaustive academia of Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, I’m quite content to get a mere taste of college life in this novel. The real action takes place in atmospheric ruins, in the woods, and at dizzy parties I want to attend. Harbour’s descriptions could be annoyingly repetitive – yes I get that the staircase was “art nouveau” without it being reiterated at every step – but the atmosphere was spooky and a good stage for such dark drama. Some moments were maybe too similar to Pamela Dean’s version: the students behaving weirdly must be theatre majors, the old photos of Jack look-alikes from the past must have some logical explanation, the constant quoting of poetry. At least Sylvie had the decency to call out Christie’s weirdness whenever he busted out a line from Yeats in regular conversation. But I’m being too picky again. While Tam Lin is technically a much smarter novel, with more subtlety and cunning allusions, Thorn Jack was just a more enjoyable read for me. I liked the twist with the sacrifice and was happy to have a bit of magic on nearly every page.

In the way that Fire & Hemlock and Tam Lin pulled bits and pieces from various ballads into one complex homage, though not nearly so craftily as Dianna Wynne Jones, Thorn Jack has some obvious parallels and some smaller little references. Comparisons to Holly Black’s Tithe might be more accurate.  Harbour incorporates various fairy characters and traditions into her plot, using a huge cast of minor characters to create an unearthly atmosphere in our own realm. Read the book to appreciate all the moments which dip into legend, but let yourself embrace the diversion into a more modern story along the way.

So, was Thorn Jack a good book? I think so… The cast of characters was sometimes hard to follow, the writing had clunky passages, and the romance was a bit of a mess. The ending, too, was confusing enough that I had to go through it again before closing the book. The book suffers from too much trying to happen in not enough space. But the entire time I was reading it, I was thoroughly engrossed in the story. I had to know what would happen to the characters, and I wanted to stay in Fair Hollow for a long time. My delight in reading Thorn Jack is similar to my fondness for Anne Rice’s vampire books: there are so many weird characters I’d like to meet in the invisible world within our own. These books aren’t trying to be academic literature, they’re just fun. Thorn Jack is entertaining, dark, and an interesting debut. I will definitely be reading the next book in Katherine Harbour’s Night and Nothing series, whenever it comes out.

*An incomplete list would include Holly Black, Maggie Stiefvater, Pamela Dean, Jane Yolen, Charles de Lint, Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, Julie Kagawa, Brenna Yovanoff, Terri Windling, and many many others.

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8 thoughts on “Book Review: Thorn Jack by Katherine Harbour

  1. Pingback: Thoughts About Ballads: “Tam Lin” Re-tellings | Navigating The Stormy Shelves

  2. Thank you for your excellent reviews! I’ve been enjoying myself immensely getting and will be giving Thorn Jack a chance.

    You could give The Replacement by Brenna Yvanoff a go. It’s one of my go-to’s for it’s sinister faeries, the whole “Is it that time again? Why, yes it is. Tithe Time!” thing, and it’s written from the viewpoint of the protagonist who is a high school boy-but-not-quite-human. The setting is great and is necessary to the story: A town where everyone knows a tithe goes to the faeries but no one dares to actually say it aloud. In the same way that the protagonist’s family knows he isn’t the child they originally started out with but love him anyway. Excellent read, wonderful writer.

    • I read The Replacement a few years ago, in a dark and dreary Scottish February, and really enjoyed it. Yovanoff is *so good* at creating a spooky, tense atmosphere. I think she recognizes how the chaotic moral compass of faery-creatures sort of mirrors the very muddled teenage experience. I liked her other books, too, but The Replacement had those great superstitions and weird town secrets that made it the best. (I am excited to read her new book, Fiendish. It sounds terrifying!)

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  4. Pingback: The Darkest Part Of The Forest is out today! Here’s why I love it. | Navigating The Stormy Shelves

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