For us readers of a certain age, “Tam Lin” and “college” in the same sentence are going to remind us of Pamela Dean’s quirky retelling. But other than profuse quoting of poetry, Dean’s Tam Lin and Katherine Harbour’s Thorn Jack are not much alike and don’t really invite comparisons. You might also think of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight a time or two, as a few of the story’s bones are similar, but I never once felt like I was reading a Twilight copy while reading Thorn Jack — which goes to show you tropes need not be poison if woven into a good tale. What Thorn Jack reminded me of, more than anything else, was the books Elizabeth Hand was writing back in the nineties, especially Black Light.
Eighteen-year-old Finn is still reeling from the suicide of her older sister. She and her father, to escape the sad memories San Francisco now holds for them, move back to her father’s hometown of Fair Hollow, New York. There, Finn will attend college at one of the local schools, HallowHeart. It feels more like a high school in some ways, and it isn’t used to the extent it could have been, but what we do see of HallowHeart is intriguing and appropriately mysterious.
She quickly makes two close friends, and then the trio is drawn into the strange world of the Fatas: the richest, weirdest, most secretive family in Fair Hollow. They throw the best parties, but there’s a whiff of the sinister about them. Finn falls for one of their number, Jack Fata, but also learns that her sister may have encountered these beings before her death, and that they’re planning something horrible for Halloween night.
I wish we had a little more sense of Finn as a person, of who she is when she’s alone. She seems somewhat blank at first, which can at least partly be attributed to grief, but one does wish for a little more metaphorical flesh to her. Later, she develops a fierceness that is a joy to see, and I also love that her courage isn’t only employed on behalf of her love interest. She defends her friends, too, and also defends a guy she barely knows just because it’s the right thing to do.
I mentioned Black Light above, and now I’ll go into why: Thorn Jack is one of those lush, dreamlike books full of surreal parties, gloriously creepy old houses, strange plays of light, roses and ivy and blood. It’s a veritable phantasmagoria of imagery, and if it were a movie, Tim Burton would no doubt be involved. Some readers like this stuff and some don’t; your mileage may vary. (I’m a sucker for it, as it happens.) And Harbour adds some fun twists and changes to the original story.
It’s a little rough around the edges. There are moments when conversations don’t seem to follow a logical path; someone will say something and you’ll wonder how they got there from the thing that was said right before it. There are words that are used too many times in close proximity; “saunter” comes to mind. There are a few possible holes in the magic; a guy who gets dizzy when he’s close to an iron bracelet is not likely to live in a place at the top of an old fire escape, I think.
Sometimes I find myself unmoved by a book while recognizing that it’s technically near-perfect. This is the inverse of that phenomenon: a book that is technically flawed, but which nonetheless grabbed me. My right brain and left brain want to give it different ratings. I’ve settled on 3.5 stars, and neither brain is quite happy with it, but you know what they say about compromise. Fairy lovers, check Thorn Jack out. It has some first-novel flaws and clunkinesses, but Harbour’s imagination is a riot of scary fairies and intoxicating imagery, and I’m definitely interested in reading her next effort.
Note: Kat has a copy of the audio version of Thorn Jack which was produced by Brilliance Audio and read by Kate Rudd. She’s only listened to a little bit of it so far, but she reports that Rudd is a nice choice for the narrator.