Review: Tam Lin

Medical stuff needs to start getting out of my way, man. >.< Sorry this took so long.

Based off of the Scottish ballad, The Ballad of Tam Lin, Pamela Dean’s novel takes the characters from medieval Scotland into 1970’s Minnesota. Janet Carter begins attending Blackstock College, the same university where her father works. But there are strange things a foot, especially involving the Classics Department, and Janet finds herself drawn into them, all for the sake of one Thomas Lane.

…You know, for something that boils down to that short of a summary, why did it take 450+ pages to tell it? I guess I’ll go through the problems I had with the book, and then move on to what I actually liked about it, or at least were fairly strong. To start with, the pacing was awful. There was some fairly decent set up early on in the novel with mentioning the ghost and then of the stories of two girls committing suicide, and there were brief flashes of relevant information throughout the rest of the text, and then all the plot basically waited until the last three chapters to actually happen.

Really, there were two problems that led to the pacing being as bad as it was. One was the fact Dean tried to tell three and a half years of college in one book. There’s a lot of information in there that I was going, “Point, point, point… NONE TO BE FOUND!” We didn’t need to know Janet’s course plan for her entire college career. We definitely didn’t need to meet every single professor that she met. Some of the side-plot shenanigans were fine, but there were so many side plots, literature metaphors, and characters that would randomly pop up that I had a hard time making it to the end of the book or even seeing what any of them had to do with the main plot of the story.

The second was the lack of what is called a direct antagonist. Without someone to constantly and consistently be in conflict with Janet, the story didn’t get any feel of resolution. Were there a few people who disagreed with Janet on occasionally? Yes, but it didn’t feel much like a centralized, plot driven conflict. The plot-provided villain, Medeous the Faerie Queen, was never really shown in conflict with Janet or really living up to any of the reputation she apparently had with other students. Without that direct antagonist to constantly be getting in Janet’s way and causing trouble, the story just dragged on for pages and pages. Even the ending was lacking something, since there was nothing really there to  make me root against the Faerie Queen.

That was the second major problem with the book. There was a huge cast of characters, from students to faculty to members of Janet’s family. So many that I often couldn’t keep track of who was who as far as who was speaking. Some of them weren’t even named, but just were constant presences. I can understand wanting to replicate the feeling of being a lonely little freshman lost among the masses, but really, it was a bit ridiculous to keep throwing names at the reader and expecting them to sort out who was who and how they were important. There were also so many of them that it was harder to separate the main cast from the side members, not to mention keep the traits that belong to each name assigned right in your head. I completely forgot Thomas was blonde, for example, until it was mentioned again much later in the book. He just sort of blended in with the rest of the boys, so I assumed he was dark like Nick.

As far as what was done well, I felt like the main character, Janet was well rounded. There were traits about her that I didn’t like, but that’s what made her real. I could get a clear picture of her in my mind, which is exactly what this book needed to help get me through the dull parts. The other thing done particularly well was the setting. I didn’t get over the head with it, but there were just enough clues as to the time period and location that I was able to picture clearly what was happening. She also picked a time close enough to our own that even if you completely missed all the clues, you could still read the book without getting thrown too far off. And while I was drowning in details, some of the more subtle ones I thought were very cleverly done.

Tam Lin was recommended to me by a friend when I wanted something to review that wasn’t a book that I had living in my apartment. It’s an odd book, she’ll be the first to agree. While I think it can be a bit of a chore to read through and it needed a stronger editorial hand, I also think that if you want to read an urban fantasy book with an older protagonist, Tam Lin is as good of a place to start as any. Just…be prepared to skim over certain sections.


About Rebecca M. Horner

A spinner of yarns (of the story sort, though I do crochet...and sew, and learning to make armor...) View all posts by Rebecca M. Horner

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