This is a modern retelling of the story of Tam Lin, here set in a small mid-western American college in the early 1970s. (The original ballad is given at the end of the book.) Janet Carter has just started her first year there, studying English. "If the thing you liked to do best in the world was read, and somebody offered to pay you room and board and give you a liberal-arts degree if you would just read for four years, wouldn't you do it?" But there seems to be a ghost haunting her floor, there's something strange about the Classics faculty, and her advisor seems to be trying very hard to get her to change her major.
There's lots of glorious description of being a student, of putting on Jacobean plays, and of the wonders of English literature. For the first nine-tenths of the book, apart from some minor weirdness, this could almost be a mainstream autobiographical-style novel. It's only at the end that things come to a head, but the action is all over rather too quickly and too easily (although with a hint that there's more trouble brewing in seven years' time).
Don't get me wrong. This is a beautifully written book, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. The only reason I have given it as low an SF rating as I have is that I didn't find enough foreground Fantasy in it for my taste.
Is it just me? Am I obtusely missing the point, or does the entire plot of this book occur in the last twenty-five pages? If it wasn't so well written maybe I wouldn't be so cross.
-- Patricia S. Bowne, rec.arts.sf.written, 1999
No, I think the entire point of the book occurs in the first four hundred pages. The end bit is tacked on, and most of the people I know who love the book wish it were replaced with another four hundred pages of Janet Going To School.
You see, the real reason this book is beloved -- not just admired as a well-written adaptation of the Tam Lin ballad -- is that it's the headiest form of fantasy: wish-fulfillment. This is wish-fulfillment fantasy for people who think college is just the most wonderful thing in all the world. In Tam Lin you get the perfect combination: all the best of the liberal-arts college experience, with the magical bits turned up just a notch, made even more vivid.
If you saw your time at university as a four-year beer blast before real life, a time investment that had to be put in before you could get on with an exciting profession, or an unavoidable course of irrelevant hoops to jump through, you will probably not fall romantically in love with this book the way others have. It also helps if your reaction to long-haired sonnet-writing musically-talented cloak-wearing learned intellectual aesthetes is "Oh my God THAT is what I want to be more than anything else in the world." Did you write on your college application that you have no goals besides indulging the pure love of learning? This is the book for you.
Because, both literally and figuratively, Pamela Dean gives you college as enchanted garden. When you step out of the enchantment, as Janet does when she sleeps at home, all the magic begins to ring false. For one thing, where do these incredibly wise, deep, and mature twenty-year-olds come from? High school??!! And where do they go? The people I know now usually seem to me a lot less mature than the profound twenty-year-olds I admired in college -- a character type that seems to have vanished (they didn't become English Lit and Classics grad students, let me tell you; a more pragmatic and unromantic lot you never will meet). Pamela Dean's answer that those questions is ... well, once you've accepted the idea that these sorts of people really are as special and magical as they seem when you're under the spell of late adolescence, it's the only answer that works!
So if I had my druthers, Tam Lin would not only have talked about Janet's experiences in classes all through Freshman year, but would have continued unabated throughout Sophomore, Junior, and Senior years, complete with rambles in the college garden, walks through the underground steam tunnels (with untranslated Homeric graffiti! if that's not a high-school book nerd's dream of what college will be like, I don't know what is), trips to see plays followed by fascinating conversations, love, sex, and endless interesting people doing interesting things. (There aren't many books that do this at all. The Secret History succeeds for about ten pages. Galatea 2.2 gets the poetry right, at least for Champaign-Urbana.) And we could have skipped the sudden shift into fairy tale adventure at the end, because ideally it never would end, and could be the perfect escape from the hellish factory that grad school erects on top of the enchanted garden. God knows I used this book often for just that purpose.
-- David Librik, rec.arts.sf.written, 1999
My experiences at college were about as different from Janet's as you can get! My friends were far more likely to be discussing the latest theories in quantum physics than the motivations of Shakespeare, and most of them treated their few humanities classes as necessary evils that had to be suffered through thanks to lame college administrators. So it's not really that reading about Janet's experiences reminds me of my own college life - it's not even that her experience was something that I would have wanted!
-- Courtney I. Hilliard, rec.arts.sf.written, 1999
Like you, my friends and I discussed QM much more than we did Shakespeare. (But I bet we discussed Shakespeare more than the English students did QM :-) Yet for me, reading Janet's experiences did remind me very strongly of my wonderful time at college -- it was the heady experience of learning, the sheer joy of having other people to talk to about it, and most of all not having to pretend I didn't like this stuff. The fact that Janet Carter in Tam Lin was an English major at a US college, and that I read theoretical physics in the UK, didn't matter to me.
-- me, rec.arts.sf.written, 1999
The people of the land known as The Dubious Hills are living under an enchantment designed to stop a recurrence of the Wizard Wars. At puberty, each comes into their special piece of knowledge: one might know what is beautiful, another how to teach. The rest can learn about these things to some degree, but never know them. 14-year-old Arry's knowledge is not easy to bear: she alone feels people's pain, and must tell them when they are hurt, so that they can go to be mended. Into this peaceful land come wolves offering a terrible choice. Whichever choice the people make, the price they will have to pay will be unbearably high.
This is a delightful, strange tale, with a strong underlying story leavened with gorgeous quirky details. The people are happy with the almost-idyllic way they live (of course, only those whose gift is to know happiness can know that), yet we can see the terrible price they have paid for this, and the terrible burdens placed on the knowledge-bearers. We follow Arry as she discovers that not all pain is physical, and not all pain can be fixed.