Thorn Jack – Katherine Harbour – Kate Rudd

When I started listening to this book, I resisted a little. Teenage urban fantasy, I sighed, and tried to remember what prompted me to buy it. (Ah – I’d gotten the ebook on the cheap, and there was a special price for the audiobook, so I took a shot.) I tsked over some phrasing – “when they’d been young”; “since they’d been little”; “when she’d been twelve”, etc. But, on the other hand, I enjoyed things like this –

“Whatever.”
“And once again the kingdom of whatever asserts itself.”

It was clever. And funny. And intriguing. And sad. And creepy. And some of the writing achieved true poetry. I kept going.

The audiobook narrator, Kate Rudd, is overall very good, although I’m not in love with the way she reads intense scenes. Can’t put my finger on exactly why. My only real complaint is that she insisted on pronouncing Tam Lin as “Tom Lin”, which jangled against the ballad as I’ve always heard it. Well, and the fact that rather often the wrong “voice” was used for a character’s lines. (To give her credit, it takes some time to get used to the main female character being named Finn, which is usually a male name, and her best male friend being named Christie, which outside of Ireland and Charles De Lint is usually not.) Well, and the fact that I got a bit weary of Finn exclaiming “Jack!!” like Rose on the Titanic, but I suppose that one was unavoidable.

After a bit the story began to unfold in earnest. Finn and her father have moved back to the town where her parents went to school, planning to make a new start after the death a few years ago of her mother and the more recent suicide of her sister, and Finn began attending her parents’ alma mater. She found a pair of amazing friends, Sylvie and Christie, with a speed that made me sigh again. I appreciated that Kate Rudd had a solid knowledge of fantasy without feeling the need to reference Tolkien or Beagle every paragraph. I enjoyed the scents that permeated the book – people’s individual fragrances, the smell of a street at night or a lawn at high noon or an abandoned and astonishingly creepy hotel. And the imagery began to get under my skin – and I mean that in a really good way. Her descriptions were a few degrees off the common, and conjured marvelously clear images. Her command of language is light years better than all those lesser writers I’ve seen who throw the book (the dictionary, that is) at a sentence to try to force the reader to “see” exactly what was in their minds, and just end up with word salad half the time. “He was like something that had stopped pretending to be human”. “His eyes were colder than moonlight on a knife.” “Jewels and eyes glittered like tooth and claw.” Katherine Harbour writes like a painter. The imagery was so powerful I wish I’d had a sketchbook handy along with the leisure to fill it up as I listened, with things like boys filled with flowers and a hooded figure holding a rose in its hands. Maybe someday.

The names are magnificent. Leafstruck Mansion. HallowHeart. Caliban Ariel’Pan.

There is a nicely struck balance of humor and deadly seriousness. The three teenaged protagonists are wonderful characters – everyone deserves friends like these (however cranky the speed of their having been acquired made me), and their fate is never assured. They inadvertently interrupt an arcane wake, and while the reader-slash-listener knows that this could be a fatal misstep for them, the author adroitly shows that Our Heroes are all but clueless about the very real danger they’re in. They’re still not seeing the line between mundane and fae, still unaware that the world as they know it never really existed, and they do not understand that they are let off lightly when those holding the wake decide to penalize them with the lesser of three evils: mischief. It’s bad enough – little do they know how very much worse it could be.

They find out.

“Caliban and Phuagh shall escort you over the threshold.”
Finn didn’t like how Reiko had phrased that last statement. She searched for a trick. She looked over her shoulder at Jack, who said clearly, “Phouka – make sure they move safely over the threshold of this building and into Fair Hollow.”

And then someone came out and said the word “teind”, and if it hadn’t begun to happen already everything changed. “Tam Lin” (or as SJ Tucker calls it, “the 400-year-old Childe ballad about trying to rescue your baby-daddy from the queen of the fairies before it’s too late”) has been one of my favorite tales forever. Pamela Dean’s novel of that name is something I’ve probably read half a dozen times (and I need to go find it and read it again), and one of the books I’d quite possibly go back into a burning building for is my thirty year old paperback of Elizabeth Marie Pope’s [book:The Perilous Gard], one of my favorite books in all the world (this or any other – also in need of a reread soon). (ETA: It’s also available on Audible, in a really lovely narration, and now I don’t have to rush to find my paperback, or risk my life for it.) And, of course, Steeleye Span’s “Tam Lin” was a pillar of my twenties (and, to a lesser degree, Fairport Convention’s). It’s actually a theme I’m surprised hasn’t been used to death, because the lady saves the knight’s butt.

Something happened to me as I was listening to this book. You know the book (or movie) “How Stella Got Her Groove Back”? That’s kind of how I felt, only quite not in the way Terry McMillan meant it. A long, long time ago, I drew. I painted. I wrote. I made things. I was positively steeped in Steeleye Span and Phoenyx and The Chieftains, and as often as possible I dressed in bodice and boots and bells and hied me to the Renaissance Faire.

I haven’t done any of that in a long, long time. Did I “grow up”?

Why? Where’s that gotten me?

Something … something about this book woke all of it up in me.

Another added bonus from this book is that a ways into it I felt the need to go listen to the ballad “Tam Lin”, and betook myself to YouTube, intending to bring up Steeleye Span. Instead, I found Tricky Pixie, and fell straight in love, and have since become a fangirl of S.J. Tucker (Sooj!) in particular. (And in looking to expand my knowledge of where the group went after that one album (“Keepers of the Flame”), I discovered more about the aforementioned Phoenyx and lead singer and songwriter Heather Alexander; I’m still wrapping my brain around that.)

And so. Hopefully this will last. I really hope so. It felt … amazing. “Iron and salt. Poetry. Silver. Running water. Church bells, incense, mirrors, blessed ribbons, rowan wood, parsley, various other botanical varieties – these are your defenses.” Silver, iron, salt, a talisman that means something (preferably in iron or silver) – these are the things that will keep you safe from the dark things, those things of night and nothing, the unseelie court. For the night is dark, and full of ter – um, yeah, anyway.

“Do you want this world of absolutes and accidents? Of hopelessness and ugly deaths? If we die, there will be no hope. Nothing but what you see.” The sublime – something sadly absent in modern life – that’s what else the night is full of, and faerie. It can kill you – or it can make you see, really see, kind of like a night on Cadair Idris.

Music and bells, incense and roses, Tricky Pixies and Phoenyxes – these are the things that will help to open me up to the starry night, the bright fae – the magic. I think I remember the path now. Thanks, Katherine Harbour.

Tam Lin by Steeleye Span
Tam Lin by Tricky Pixie – a subtly different take! And my introduction to some spectacular people.
And if you’re a completist, here’s
Tam Lin by Fairport Convention
The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope
Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

One final lesson that – depending on your outlook – might not be a bad thing to keep in mind: “Don’t ever put anything outside your house with the word ‘welcome’ on it.” Oh. Hey. Good point. (Happily, my doormat says “Hi. I’m Mat.”)

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2 Responses to Thorn Jack – Katherine Harbour – Kate Rudd

  1. pooks says:

    You sold me. Off to add this to my list.

  2. stewartry says:

    Oh, cool! I hope you love it.

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