Thorn Jack by Katherine Harbour

17 Jul 2014 by

Melodramatic and youthful, Thorn Jack by Katherine Harbour is a modern adaptation of the Scottish ballad of Tam Lin told for a young adult audience.

Cover - Thorn Jack


College freshman Serafina Sullivan is grieving the recent death of her sister, Lily Rose, and the past death of her mother when she and her father pick up and move across country, from west coast to east, to a mysterious and history-steeped small New York college town. Immediately upon her arrival she notices some slightly off-center events like a creepy broken altar inside an abandoned chapel covered in a moldy pink cake. She’s quickly distracted from these quirky affairs when she meets Jack Fata, a member of the secretive, wealthy, and glamorous Fata family. Young Jack has red-tipped dark hair, a tiny ruby in his nostril, and an old-fashioned air despite it all.

Finn, as she is called, has allies in recently-met neighbor Christie Hart and his friend Sylvie Whitethorn. This is good, because she will need them. The touched and prophetic young girl, Anna, has something to tell Finn: she’s going to die on All Hallow’s Eve.

Review: The Nitty Gritty

Katherine Harbour has a very melodramatic-writing style aided by her profuse use of adjectives. This sometimes makes for murky understanding of what exactly is going on, which is not helped by the occasionally disjointed prose*. Although the highly-descriptive and flowery language (if the flowers are dead and decaying) can be a hindrance, once I deciphered each passage, it was quite enjoyable and beautiful. The novel was mildly humorous at points and despite its attempts, did not evoke that much emotion. At points, it seemed like the author was trying just a little too hard. The pacing was perfect and the dialogue was just right. Overall, Harbour did an excellent job of matching her writing style to her intended young adult audience.

Let’s stop discussing that, though, and get to the good stuff. Fair Hollow, the town of “between” that comprises the setting of Thorn Jack, makes the book. It’s as if tales from Great Britain smashed into the American northeast combined with the Hellmouth from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and merged with Chilton of Gilmore Girls to spew out dark, mythological British fairy tale creatures determined to keep their privileged way of life. The setting is that awesome. While I feel ambivalent about most of the characters and the general plot, I would pay good money to see Fair Hollow translated to the big screen in some fashion.

Speaking of the plot, which is at its most basic is inspired by and comprised of an expanded and adapted Tam Lin… well, it just really wasn’t that compelling. It seemed secondary to the setting and was not explicitly explained in the novel. At times it seemed like the story wasn’t quite going anywhere. I later discovered that what I thought was the subplot – Finn trying to stop the Teind, was really the main plot for this particular novel. I won’t say more for fear of spoilering it!

‘And ance it fell upon a day, / A cauld day and a snell, / When we were frae the hunting come, / That frae my horse I fell; / The Queen o Fairies she caught me, / In yon green hill to dwell. // ‘And pleasant is the fairy land,/ But, an eerie tale to tell, / Ay at the end of seven years / We pay a tiend to hell; / I am sae fair and fu o flesh, / I’m feard it be mysel. // ‘But the night is Halloween, lady,/ The morn is Hallowday; / Then win me, win me, an ye will, / For weel I wat ye may. // ‘Just at the mirk and midnight hour / The fairy folk will ride, / And they that wad their true-love win, / At Miles Cross they maun bide.’

Excerpted from Tam Lin

Let’s talk about this love business next. I’m not a fan of true love themes in novels because they don’t typically align with my own view point (we choose who we love; we have limited control over our reaction caused by lust). Since the true love theme figures heavily in this novel, of course I had a few eye-rolling moments. For goodness, sake, Finn moves there just as the semester starts and believes it is “everlasting love” by Halloween? How many weeks has she known this man exactly? (I’m one to talk: my husband and I moved in together six weeks after we met. Oy.) Add in that during the first chapter she’s described as fragile and helpless and my feminist heart raged. Great. Another damsel in distress.

The characters themselves are credible, though. I wanted to believe in their love, but I just couldn’t see what it was based on other than lust. Authors! Please don’t do that! Anyway, they each had distinct personalities, but I could have used a little more discussion on what drove their interpersonal relationships. Christie was probably my favorite character. He just seemed so noble and caring; I want to know a lot more about him. His character was a little undeveloped for my taste. I also loved how Harbour’s names for the characters evoked the atmosphere: Hart, Whitethorn, Phouka, Jack, etc. (This is discussed more at the forum thread.)

The end to the conflict was somewhat confusing, and I had to re-read a few times. It did complete the novel, though, and left some lingering potential areas for future stories. The epilogue was stellar, ending the novel on a sweet note while still establishing curiosity towards the next sequel. I’m driven to read the next one between that poignancy and the epic setting.

I can’t comment much on the book as a package because I had an e-ARC, but I did love the luna moths under the chapter headings in the novel. There’s also a glossary of “old Fata terms” (based on old Gaelic), a bibliography, and a sound track.


The Takeaway

This novel is a hopeful take on the dark faerie world inspired by Tam Lin and British myths. While some parts of the book lag behind expectations, the setting is fantastic and evokes hope that Katherine Harbour will continue to improve past this debut novel. There’s no overt educational value and some concerns about controlling behavior described as “love,” but is otherwise appropriate for its intended age market. After reading a couple of Cargill’s novels, it was nice to return to the dark traditional myths, but still have a little hope imbued in the story. I will read the sequels. I recommend this book for older teenagers and adults who enjoy mythic retellings in modern settings.

*To be fair, I was reading an advanced reader’s e-proof, so it’s highly possible the disjointedness has been edited and fixed in the final copy.


Thorn Jack
A Night and Nothing Novel
by Katherine Harbour

Publisher: Harper Collins Imprint: Harper Voyager
Published June 24, 2014 in Hardback Pages: 352
Review Source: review copy Review Format: advance reader’s e-proof
ISBN: 9780062286727 Finished on April 16, 2014

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  1. Ah ha! You found the exact words I was struggling for to describe the weird romance between Jack and Finn. “Damsel in distress” is exactly right, and very frustrating. I think I was able to ignore it while I read because the atmosphere and build-up to the Tithe didn’t hinge on their bizarre attraction, but it’s hard to overlook in consideration. And I’m glad I’m not the only one who had to re-read the ending, even though I sort of knew what to expect after being obsessed with the legend for years.

    I absolutely would like to see Fair Hollow with my own eyes, too. Such a good setting. I’ll probably read anything Harbour puts out next just to read more about the town and the weird characters who sort of act as part of the stage themselves.

    • You’re completely right – all the characters are truly part of the setting. Their names, their actions, their titles. Christie HART being called the “knight.” Aaaah! I am going to be posting more of my thoughts (the spoiler-y ones) over on the forum within the next few days.

      Part of me is looking forward to the sequel, but another part is hesitant. I think it was you who said that it seemed like they were young teenagers instead of college kids. Quite right. I don’t mind if they’re acting like young teenagers because they’re young teenagers, but I hope in the next sequel they’re acting and described at the appropriate age.

  2. I’m so glad we agree on the confusing bits, and while I’m excited for the sequel, I’m kind of confused as to what’s going to happen in the second book. Jack and Finn’s story seems like its over. Thanks for the great review!

  3. You’re definitely right about the ending. Despite Thorn Jack’s flaws, I’m intrigued about what comes next.

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