Tam Lin

by Pamela Dean

Cover image

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: November 1990
Printing: April 1992
ISBN: 0-812-54450-1
Format: Mass market
Pages: 468

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Janet is the daughter of an English professor, so she has some advantage over her freshmen classmates when starting at Blackstock, a small liberal arts college in Minnesota. Still, even with that knowledge, college is a bit overwhelming. Parts of it, particularly those involving the Classics department, are downright strange. Tam Lin is, predictably, a retelling of the 16th century Scottish ballad by the same name. But before that becomes clear, it's a story about college, about one's first time in a dorm room as a freshman, about classes and professors and advisors and homework and love affairs.

The most likely complaint about this book is that it's slow, partly because the fantasy elements only gel and clearly enter the story in the last hundred pages and that plot is barely hinted at in the rest of the book. There's a pervasive sense of strangeness, but it leads nowhere and is explained and woven so well into the essential weirdness of the college experience that it's always ambiguous just what's going on. I'm embarassed to say that I didn't work out what was really happening until page 130 and it stays below the narrative surface for much longer than that.

Until then, there isn't much plot compared to the typical fantasy novel. Instead, Dean spends the pages on a slice of college life, featuring deep characterization, slow exploration of emotions and reactions, and some wonderful scene-setting. I found myself remembering and identifying with bits and pieces of the college experience throughout. And while the descriptions of the buildings and grounds were a bit long in places, they did create a great sense of atmosphere. I loved the small touches of details about college furniture, the poetry on the walls in the steam tunnels, and the strange traditions that continue for no other reason than that they're traditions.

Most importantly, I liked these characters. Janet has a practical, thoughtful manner, introspective without telling the reader easy answers and simple stories about her thoughts and emotions. The habit of many of the characters to quote things to each other at the drop of a hat is simply fun and feels like the sort of dynamic that I had with friends at college. (I do wish, though, that the quotes had gone farther afield. I was delighted at first that Janet's reading material included SFF classics and other modern fiction as well as English literature classics, but the quoting is overwhelmingly from the latter, even though she's clearly familiar with other sources.) The relationships are messy and complicated, without easy answers but with enough resolution and foundation that they don't leave the reader adrift. This reads like a very good mainstream slice of life novel, given additional depth by the eerie hints of fantasy that creep in around the edges, are explained away, but then return undaunted.

The fantasy component, when it comes, is a faithful modern reinterpretation of the story, but at times it felt a bit forced and the conclusion felt sadly out of place. I enjoyed learning what was really going on and it explained a lot about the apparent desperation and reactions of some of the characters. However, the rules they were all following were never much elaborated on, leaving a climax that follows the ballad exactly but without much additional explanation for why. The plot climax has to live entirely in the realm of fantasy, given the situation Dean sets up, but the fantasy is kept backgrounded enough through the rest of the story that it doesn't have much emotional resonance. I was far more invested in the outcome of the various relationships and educational decisions of the characters than in the surface plot climax, and it felt like matters spun out of control in an awful hurry to reach a climax by the end of the story and the end of Janet's time at college.

The book is a bit long and at times unnecessarily detailed in its descriptions (while later annoyingly skipping over months and years of time). It's not a novel to pick up when you're looking for action and adrenaline. I found it charming and thoughtful, but I think one's opinion of this book will rest on one's opinion of the characters and their social dynamic and whether that's compelling enough to keep turning the pages. The banter and detailed descriptions of college life drew me in, and I ended up not minding that the plot was light and dealt mostly with the changing fortunes of various romantic relationships. I loved the description of Janet's classes, her interactions with her roommates, and the complexities of her relationship with her old high school boyfriend, her new boyfriend at college, and her parents.

It worked for me, but I can see how it might not for everyone. Best approached as a college story rather than as a fantasy.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-05-20

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21