I’m a sucker for fairy tales.
Tam Lin is my second favorite book of all time (I’ll probably address my first and third in their own posts some time in the future). I will usually read this book every other year or so.
Tam Lin is part of Tor’s Fairy Tale Series which covered about a half dozen well known fairy tales like “Sleeping Beauty,” “Snow White, Rose Red,” and others. Several fantasy writers selected a fairy tale and put their own twist on it. This one features the Scottish ballad “Tam Lin,” which is about a young man named Tam Lin who is captured by the Queen of Faerie and is rescued by his true love, Janet (who is pregnant with his child). She frees him by grabbing onto him and refusing to let go even though the queen transforms him into all sorts of violent creatures.
In the novel, it is 1971 on a mid-western college campus, and Janet Carter has just started her freshman year as an English major. She and her roommates run into a band of Classics majors, who are, for the most part, unearthly strange and beautiful. Janet’s advisor, who is affiliated with the Classics department, does her best to try and convince Janet to switch majors. Janet is intrigued by the Classics majors, and after they befriend her and her roommates, she slowly begins to explore some of the classes, running up against the terrifying Medeous, the head of the Classics department who is rumored to be bizarre, quirky, bisexual, and jealously possessive. The Classics majors are a tight knit group and often disappear to participate in strange rituals, which raises Janet’s curiosity, especially once she starts dating one of them. Along with all this weirdness, there’s also a book-flinging ghost, eerie bagpipes, and a mind-clouding effect that lulls one into complacency.
It’s strange that I like this book so much, because it really is extremely poorly paced. The first year alone takes up over half the book. After that, the book just sort of starts flying through the semesters, which is weird after such detailed descriptions of the first semester. And there’s a really weird and draggy part of “a play within the play” where Dean describes a play that Janet goes to see that’s put on by members of the Classics department. This part is so boring and confusing, I always skip over it when rereading it. I think there’s some parallels with the actual story and such (most of the plays in the book do have parallels), but it just doesn’t feel important and it’s written so clunkily–Dean goes through an act by act description of everything that’s happening on the stage.
What I do like about the book is the college life aspect. Blackstock College is based on a real college, Carleton College in Minnesota. It’s very vividly described, and really pretty much the first two-thirds of the book reads like general college life, except they tend to talk a little oddly (the Classics majors tend to talk like poets, and not like 18-21-year-olds at all). Honestly, there is pretty much no magic for the majority of the book. When I was reading it for the first time, I remember thinking, “I thought this was a fantasy?” But I didn’t really care because I enjoyed reading about the college dramas that occurred, dating problems, debating over majors, bad dorm food, weird dormmates, etc. And the language was just gorgeous. It’s a beautiful book when Dean focuses on Janet’s life and her puzzling out the vague weirdness of the school. Even the font was perfect for this story (it’s also used for a couple of the other books in the series), and I’m not a font nerd.
So, what is fantasy about the story? Well, you can probably guess part of it once you know what the original story was about. But there’s also another fantastical element that I thought was kind of cool that I won’t spoil here.
The ending was very, very abrupt. I’ve never been happy really with how it ended. It was as if Dean was all, “oh, I should wrap it up, and oh yeah, I need to make a tie in to the fairy tale, so voila, ok, done,” but it came off as sort of tacked on and contrived. I don’t know. Maybe because after so much non-magic, and then to be slammed in the face by nothing but magic, it just seemed weird and awkward.
Despite this being a hefty book at over 600 pages in the mass market edition (with the lovely Thomas Canty cover art, which is why I haven’t replaced it with a sturdier trade edition), I would’ve been much happier if the book had been even longer as long as it covered more of Janet and her friends’ years at Blackstock, and therefore better paced.
To sum up, if you don’t mind reading a simply beautiful book with some severe pacing flaws, I can totally recommend Tam Lin.