Tam Lin by Pamela Dean (Firebird, 1991) is a modern re-telling of the ancient Scottish ballad. In this version, Janet, the main character, goes off to college and falls in with an interesting group of people, including Thomas Lane, the Tam Lin character, whom she must eventually save from the maniacal chair of the Classics department.
I really wanted to like this book (and you know it’s never good when a review starts this way). It has been mentioned as favorite of several of my favorite YA fantasy authors (ex: Jessica Day George here), and the book’s cover calls it a “cult classic,” so I was pretty excited to get started reading it. However, after several hundred pages of reading about what Janet was reading for English class, I started to lose interest.
To start, I am not familiar with the ballad of Tam Lin. And after having finished this book, I still don’t feel that I am. I would really like to read another, more literal, version of it to see how the two compare. I feel like I would appreciate this novel more if I understood the source material; I have no idea how many things in the book are subtle references to the ballad that I may have missed.
I started this version on very familiar territory: like the protagonist, I attended a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, and I have a crazy family of academics (someone once accused my family of “eating books for dinner”). So some things in the book really rang true for me, but it was not enough to keep me hooked. The friendships in the book felt a lot like my college friendships, and the studying, etc. Even the buildings seemed familiar to me. I could really picture myself in the dorms and classrooms and cafeterias. But I never once attended a Halloween party where we sat around drinking cider and read “La Belle Dame sans Merci” aloud. While that is my favorite Keats poem, the scene was just so absurd it crashed me out of the book.
I consider myself fairly well-verse in literature; my education and my family certainly saw to that. Milton, Chaucer, etc. were all right when I was reading them, but something substantially more boring than actually reading the works of dead white guys is listening to people TALK about reading them, which is essentially what the majority book was. Perhaps I am merely prejudiced against Janet because my favorite poets are the despised “moderns.” While I enjoy a good Shakespeare play, if I wanted commentary on a Shakespeare production that I didn’t actually get to see, I would read a review, not a fantasy novel. Perhaps I am surrendering some “nerd cred” by admitting that I was not enthralled by reading about Janet reading The Iliad in Greek, but so be it.
I enjoyed many of the characters in the book, especially the roommates (not just because they were biologists, haha), but they were just not strong enough to hold up a 400 page book. I also loved the author’s writing style, very witty and academic. It was her writing that kept me going through this book, and I really would like to read more by her. Unfortunately, the font of the book (this 2006 edition) made punctuation hard to decipher; a semicolon might look like a comma. And when the author has such a interesting, unorthodox style of writing those differences are important. I also really appreciated her ability to use a “modern” setting for fantasy. While there were a few too many mentions of contraception for my taste, I think she really merged both the old world and the new very well, using some great concepts like a ghost who throws books out the window, an academic advisor with a penchant for yarrow wreaths, and fencing lessons.
The pacing of this book, however, was totally off. Janet’s first year of college is covered in depth, but her junior year goes by in a few chapters. It was hard to determine which details were important and which were not. I found myself skipping ahead frequently, which I only do with books when I’m bored and suspect there may be something better further on. The author also keeps the majority of the fantasy until the end, which feels hurried compared to the rest of the book. At a few points, I even wondered if there would be any actual fantasy elements at all to the story. Maybe classics majors ARE just crazy and ride around on horses at night and throw books out the window that’s all there is to it.
I never mind a little ambiguity to book endings, and this one has plenty of questions left over. Is there a ghost or isn’t there? Who are the “two dearer?” Where exactly does Peg fit in? Why can they never remember the flashlights?
In short, this was a good book, but some more editing could have made it great. I’m sure I will read this book again after I read more about the actual ballad of Tam Lin, but I probably won’t feel any desire to until then.
Rating: 3.5 / 5 stars