Pamela Dean,
Tam Lin
(Tor, 1991)

Tam Lin, Pamela Dean's inspired retelling of the Scottish ballad, gets my vote for the most inventive of Terri Windling's Fairy Tale Series. It's not that Dean's version is more imaginative or better written than the novels by Dalkey, de Lint, Wrede and Brust; it's just that ... well, for most of the novel, you don't even realize there's a fairy tale lurking behind the story at all.

In fact, there are places where you wonder what the story is, fairy tale or no fairy tale. Despite that confusion, Dean has written a truly absorbing tale. Tam Lin is the story of Janet, a freshman at Blackstock College, and her two roommates, not to mention the ups and downs associated with juggling classes, friendships, extracurricular activities and love. Although Janet's father has taught at Blackstock for twenty-two years, Janet soon discovers all sorts of strange rumors and traditions there, most of which center around the ghost that haunts the fourth floor of Erickson and Professor Medeous, head of the classics department. Janet's life becomes even more confusing when she gets caught up with Robin, Nick, Thomas and the rest of the theatre/classics department, which results in an ending full of magic and strength.

Dean's pacing is hard to figure out; at times I wasn't sure whether I was reading a day-by-day account of Janet's college life or a heavily disguised study guide for my English Lit. comps. However, the story effortlessly wrapped me up; I felt myself commiserating with Janet over her roommate problems and her inability to remember key events about the Erickson ghost. At times, the novel and its events became so universal that I forgot that Dean's characters inhabit a college campus in the 1970s. Speaking of characters, Janet, Molly and Tina are all believable and unique, although I found myself sometimes questioning Janet's decidedly eclectic knowledge of English literature.

The Tam Lin ballad only makes sneak appearances here and there, with a full entrance at the climax of the novel. The first time I read it, I wanted to complain bitterly about the obvious relegation of fairy tale elements to second place. However, the next time I read it, I got so caught up in Janet's life that I completely forgot I was reading a retold fairy tale. Dean should be applauded for her ability to bring one young woman's college years to life in a story that is complex, intriguing and heartfelt.

So if you're looking for something steeped in more magic and fantasy, try one of the other books in the series; the fairy tale elements are more obvious in those. However, if you're simply looking for a good book -- you know, one of those that drags you in and won't let go -- then give Pamela Dean's Tam Lin a try. You may emerge a bit disheveled, scratching your head, but you won't hesitate to climb on board again.

[ by Audrey M. Clark ]

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