How to review this? I have complicated thoughts. For a start: I love the ballad(s, there’s various versions), and I’ve read quite a few Tam Lin retellings now too. I expected to like Tam Lin, per Pamela Dean, quite a lot, because it came highly recommended and because of all the other things I was told were involved in this retelling — the ‘college as magic garden‘ aspect, primarily. And there’s a lot to like about that, because I did experience university as a magical garden in many ways, and I loved the utter focus on college, on learning, on cramming in everything you can. And that lovely feeling of finding something you didn’t expect to love through study and the right teacher, and all the possibilities, and…
It is a bit thick with references; though Jo Walton’s review suggests that it never leans on the references without explaining them, sometimes that led to the weird sense of being told the plots of all the plays mentioned within the novel. It’s a little bit infodumpy, even though it suits the whole atmosphere.
And I do like the portrayal of women being different and finding ways to get along anyway; young couples working out things like contraception and how to fit in seeing each other between their studies; men and women forming friendship groups together that aren’t completely rife with sex and jealousy (although there is some of that).
I liked the slow unfolding of it, too. It helped to know (again from Jo’s review) that the pacing of it is based on the pacing of the ballad (not sure which exact version), with the build-up taking most of the song and the denouement a verse: that is very much how it is in the novel, too. And I did like that I needed to watch for the references, keep my eyes open for the hints, that somehow ghosts and people who could’ve stepped out of Shakespeare’s plays came to seem normal.
It did frustrate me, though, how long it took for there to be payoff — how long it took for it to be confirmed as a fantasy novel, and not as, say, Janet being unstable (I knew it wasn’t that, but I apparently like my fantasy more overt), and how long it took for the two characters who turn out to be the main ones to actually really find each other. It took literally until 85% before I could see how the relationships could possibly work out like the ballad.
When it did come together, it was very satisfying. But it takes time, and you have to want to spend the time in the magical garden, spend time with these very young, very serious, very earnest characters who are just beginning to go about meaningful work and love and relationships. I can see why some people bounce off this one, I really can. I think without the strong recommendations I received plus my knowledge of the ballad (and my love for Fairport Convention’s version of it!), I might not have stuck it out.