Tam Lin: One of my favorite books

book review Pamela Dean Tam Linfantasy book reviews Pamela Dean Tam LinTam Lin by Pamela Dean

Tam Lin is Pamela Dean’s retelling of the classic folk tale, done as part of The Fairy Tale series created by Terri Windling. The folk tale is about a battle between the Faery Queen and a mortal girl for the heart and soul of Tam Lin, a young man enthralled by the Faery Queen. Pamela Dean has taken the innovative step of setting the story at a university in the Midwest during the seventies, which is pretty smart, because if the Faery Queen needs to hide out, where is she more likely to blend in than with a bunch of eccentric theater majors? Janet, the daughter of one of Blackstock’s professors, enrolls at the university as a freshman and moves into the dormitories. Like those at any good old university, the dorms are haunted, and like any good freshman Janet has no idea what she wants to major in. As Janet tries to decide what she wants to study and get to the bottom of the book-throwing ghost, she meets Thomas, a young man who is more than he seems. When things get complicated, she has to choose exactly what she wants to do with her life and the lives of those around her. For those readers not familiar with the fairy tale, Dean includes a copy of the folk song in the volume.

Reading Tam Lin is like walking through autumn sunshine. The atmosphere is almost tangible as Janet struggles to make an identity of her own as a new student at Blackstock. Even though the plot as dictated by the Tam Lin folk tale doesn’t really get underway until the last quarter of the book, there are plenty of hints that something is not quite right. Dean is capable of casting an aura of foreboding and making it believable that the Faery Queen could be living undetected in a Midwestern university town. Balancing the vague sense that something is rotten in the dorms is the mundanity of college living — bad cafeteria food, weird roommates, and bizarre traditions. These details flesh out the surroundings until they take on a life of their own.

Tam Lin is one of my favorite books. I’ve read it a handful of times, and it’s one of my top choices for when I’m in a funk because it is so beautiful to read. It doesn’t bother me that almost nothing happens until the last quarter of the book, that the characters run around discussing the classics like they were born in a library, or that Dean introduces in detail a wide circle of characters who exist merely to make the world more real and have no purpose in the plot. All that just serves to illuminate the gorgeous writing.

You are not going to like this book if you need action and plot advancement at all times, but if you are willing to just sit back and visit another world, content just to observe, this book will richly reward you for the time you spend walking the halls of Blackstock.

Tam Lin — (1991) Publisher: In the ancient Scottish ballad “Tam Lin,” headstrong Janet defies Tam Lin to walk in her own land of Carterhaugh… and then must battle the Queen of Faery for possession of her lover’s body and soul. In this version of “Tam Lin,” masterfully crafted by Pamela Dean, Janet is a college student, “Carterhaugh” is Carter Hall at the university where her father teaches, and Tam Lin is a boy named Thomas Lane. Set against the backdrop of the early 1970s, imbued with wit, poetry, romance, and magic, Tam Lin has become a cult classic — and once you begin reading, you’ll know why. This reissue features an updated introduction by the book’s original editor, the acclaimed Terri Windling.

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RUTH ARNELL (on FanLit's staff January 2009 — August 2013) earned a Ph.D. in political science and is a college professor in Idaho. From a young age she has maxed out her library card the way some people do credit cards. Ruth started reading fantasy with A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — books that still occupy an honored spot on her bookshelf today. Ruth and her husband have a young son, but their house is actually presided over by a flame-point Siamese who answers, sometimes, to the name of Griffon.

View all posts by Ruth Arnell (RETIRED)


  1. I love this one too. It was one of my comfort books, and still would be, but for the fact that my copy has walked away and I haven’t gotten around to buying a new one yet.

    I love love love fantasies set in college, and this is the very epitome of that. It’s so enchanting that you don’t care that the plot doesn’t start till the very end. I read a review once that said something like, “It’s not that we wish there were more of the Faery Queen stuff. It’s more that we’d gladly read another 400 pages of Janet Goes to School.”

    I think you have to have liked college life to “get” this one…and I did. OK, my friends and I weren’t quite this erudite, but still…

  2. I will have to get this one. I loved being in college, love college towns, and still love getting to work in that environment.

  3. I think you’d like it, Kat. The writing is beautiful and Dean does the college atmosphere so well.

  4. My cover is much prettier than this one, though.

  5. Mine was too. I had the Thomas Canty one and I’m guessing you did too. :)

  6. I thought that looked like the wrong cover. I like the other cover better as well.

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