Book Review: Talker 25 by Joshua McCune

Star Ratings (out of 5):

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Writing: **1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Age range recommendation: 12 and up

In the not-too-distant future, America has a dragon problem.  No one knows how or why they arrived, but the enormous creatures destroy towns and eat humans.  The medieval fears weren’t myths after all, but instead of knights in metal armor, mankind now faces the threat with special military divisions and dragon-slaying reality TV.

Sporty, sullen Melissa Callahan has always hated the dragons; they killed her mother and present a constant threat to her military town.  When some friends convince her to join them on a prank – breaking into the “rez” and taking photos with the big blue dragon there – she unwittingly sets off a chain of events which will jeopardize her family’s lives and shatter her illusions about the war between man and monster.  Melissa can hear the dragons talking, and it’s hard to see a creature as nothing but scales and teeth when it knows your name and wants to chat.  Soon enough, she finds herself set up, trapped, and caught in a battle between a group of renegade pro-dragon insurgents and the military “D-men.”  Both sides want to exploit her talents as a “talker,” and every choice seems to drag Melissa deeper into moral quandary of deceit, double-dealing, and political turmoil.

This debut YA novel caught my attention for several reasons.  Most importantly, it’s been too long since I read a great new dragon book for teenagers.  I’ve got old favorites from elementary and middle school, and there are obviously some exciting adult fantasy books with plenty of dragon action. But what with the futuristic bent of Young Adult literature these days, my scaly friends have been unjustly ignored.  So when an action-packed, modern dragon story came into my sights, you can bet I sank my claws right into it.

I was also intrigued by the concept of dragons in America, set on a “reservation”, inaccurately thinking that this would be a story which featured Native American protagonists as well as dragons.  It’s old news that fiction for children and teens still needs way more diversity amongst characters and authors. A mythology largely inspired by European folklore transported to a modern American reservation could have been a really excellent blending of worlds, if written well.  Alas, though certain characters could conceivably have Native American heritage, the “reservations” had nothing to do with tribal lands.  The military-suburban town where Melissa lives and attends school is fairly commonplace for white suburbia, except for the fact that everything is painted black (since dragons have trouble seeing that color when looking from the sky for prey) and everyone’s parents are professionally invested in some sort of national security. The later settings of the novel — which include rugged secret hideaways, unreal reality TV sets, and terrifyingly remote military camps — are much more exciting than Melissa’s hometown but strangely less vivid.  McCune’s descriptive style definitely lost steam as Talker 25 progressed, though the plot was charged enough to keep me interested in how things would turn out.

My favorite part of Talker 25 was unquestionably the dragons themselves.  All the flying around and inter-species alliances were interesting enough, like a more inventive Eragon (with much better writing).  But it was the different voices for each draconian character, and the various personalities Melissa encountered as she navigated the frightening world as a “talker”, which really made a good impression.  Conversations between Melissa and the of-course-he’s-handsome rebel lad who befriends her sounded very canned  now and then.  Even amongst military personnel and the rock-stars of the dragon slaying media, dialogue felt stunted at times.  Luckily, this is not the case with the dragons.  Some really are bloodthirsty nightmares full of spiteful fire.  Some are old and tired, just wanting to be left in peace on their comfortable mountain tops.  Fans of Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles will be pleased to meet more than a few devastatingly sarcastic creatures.  A few young dragons can only communicate through feelings and physical expression, and one baby in particular will probably win the hearts of even the most skeptical readers.  Human characters’ bonds with various dragon are significantly more emotional than their bonds with each other, in this book.  Maybe in the coming sequels I will care more about Melissa’s discoveries about her family, and perhaps in further books the fraught romantic elements might make a little more sense.  But based on McCune’s debut, I hope that he plays to his strength in future writing and gives us a lot more dragon dialogue and fewer formulaic human characters.

People will definitely be touting Talker 25 as “The Hunger Games with dragons,” and it’s not an entirely inaccurate label. This book checks off several themes which are getting pretty repetitive in popular, futuristic YA fiction. The violence against conscripted young people; the omnipresent government spooks; the teenagers working under captivity; the gore and mental trauma; even the shock-factor reality TV angle are all present here.  I found several of these elements to be rather unnecessary, though they did make way for some big plot points in the second half of the book, when style and pacing started to lag and something had to keep the story going.

Even though Talker 25 has trouble containing McCune’s energetic ideas, and despite some flaws with style and pacing, I had lots of fun reading this new futuristic YA adventure story.  It was gritty and stressful, and I’m intrigued enough to think that I’ll try to read the inevitable sequel.  My advice to would-be readers is this: try to see this debut novel as a modern fantasy story instead of just another grim teenage thriller with the odd magical creature thrown in.  If you focus on the dragons and the fresh take on knights training  for battle, then the gratuitous make-over scenes and underdeveloped government goons might just fade into background noise.  Because the dragons are great and the concept is fun. If you’re after an exciting series with a few unexpected twists then give McCune a try.  Ever since finishing the book I’ve been gravitating towards my collection of great dragon books from a decade ago, and if this starts a new scaly trend in YA fiction I’ll be happier than a hungry wyvern in a field full of slow-moving cattle.

An Apology From The Future

Guess who was living one day ahead of Real Life for all of yesterday.  Ahoy!  ‘Twas me.  TONIGHT is World Book Night.

Read Code Name Verity – it’s spectacular.

TODAY is Shakespeare’s Birthday.

source. Sorry Will!  You don’t look a day older.

So TONIGHT you might see World Book Night givers wandering around in public places, bent a little sideways under the weight of 20 books they think that people would enjoy.  I know it sounds suspicious – free books with no strings attached, no signing away your soul or trying to think of a fake email address on the spot?  But for once it’s not too good to be true.  No sneaky shenanigans, they’re just trying to spread the love of reading.  Take a book and ask why they loved it.  They might convince you to love it, too.

Now I have to reconcile myself to getting through what will feel like the second Wednesday of my week.  Read on!

World Book Night: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Friends, cohorts, everyone-but-my-mortal-enemies, I invite you to celebrate World Book Night with me! By “celebrate World Book Night,” I here mean: I have twenty copies of a really excellent book that I’m giving out for free – do you want one?

 

World Book Night is an annual celebration of books and the joy of reading. On this night, volunteer book-givers wander around with special copies of certain popular books which they hand out for free. The goal is to get books into the hands of people who might not otherwise be avid readers.

source: wikipedia

April 23rd is also Shakespeare’s birthday. (Happy 450th, William. Here, have this book about spies.)

No spare cash to go to the bookstore? Not sure if a certain story is going to be worth your valuable time? Are you waiting for a sign to literally land in your lap, declaring “This is a book you will love and you should read it!” Here’s your sign. I’m handing out a book that I loved – a really fast read with great characters and a thrilling twist – and you don’t have to buy it or remember to return it or anything. Read it, spill coffee on it, lose it in your car somewhere. Whatever. Free books are pretty great, especially when the story’s as good as this one is.

Here’s why I LOVED Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein:

  • Kick-ass girls in WWII: one foul-mouthed and aristocratic Scottish spy, one brilliant and earnest English pilot. Both of them are utterly wonderful, and they’re even better when they’re together.

 

  • Best-friendships are better than romantic relationships. This is a book about two young people trusting one another even when they’re using code-names and flying under blackouts and suffering through Nazi interrogation. There’s no mushy nonsense about star-crossed love or waiting for one’s boyfriend to come home from the war. The fierce friendship between these girls, thrown together in desperate circumstances, is way more powerful than any sentimental entanglements which might happen on the sidelines.

 

  • Inventive story-telling. Code Name Verity begins with one girl’s written memories of how they met and got started in the military. She’s being held prisoner by the Nazis and, under torture and threats, is turning over bits of code and whatever information she can recall, as long as she can have time and paper to write them down. Her confessions take the form of a memoir, with a vivid voice and plenty of anger behind each word. (Also plenty of cursing-out the Nazis, which is well deserved.) But then it switches: after the backstory of their friendship and the drama of military training, the story moves moves forward to a really harrowing denouement. With all the secret missions and coded communications flying around, it’s really interesting to see various angles of the war: from life in England, to the bases, to prisons, to scenes behind enemy lines.

 

  • On that note: Unreliable narrators! Thrilling plot twists! This is the sort of book you’ll want to read a second time, if you haven’t ruined it with your tears or crumpled pages in suspense. There are false leads and hidden messages, double-agents double-crossing each other, cunning misdirections, and secrets everywhere. This is a spy novel, after all. The plot isn’t particularly complicated or difficult to follow – I get easily confused/frustrated by war thrillers but found Code Name Verity to be an easy read. It’s just that once you see how everything comes together in the end you’ll want to go through and see all the clever details working in action.

 

  • A complete story. ‘Cause I, for one, am damned tired of extended YA series. There’s technically a companion novel to Code Name Verity called Rose Under Fire, but this is a book you can read on its own. No slamming the covers shut in frustration after an enormous cliff-hanger ending. No trilogy set-up just to make as much money as possible. The book is exciting and upsetting and a fantastic piece of literature unto itself. So no worries even if you’re a slow reader or are reluctant to get into a book. This one will grab your attention and not leave you feeling cheated at the end.

Who will enjoy Code Name Verity?

  • Anyone who wonders if they’d have the courage to sacrifice their comfortable lives for scary, lonely missions in dangerous locations. (After reading the book, I don’t think I would.)
  • Anyone who has a best friend and knows how that bond can be stronger than patriotism or romance or fear.
  • Anyone who can appreciate a war story focused on the individuals involved as well as the bigger picture. The book features Englishmen, Scots, French resistance fighters, farmers, Nazi interrogators, turncoats, American radio presenters, nameless government officers, and a passel of tiny Glaswegian evacuees who made me laugh when I thought I would be holding my breath forever. You love some characters and despise some others, and then realize near the end that nearly everyone has a side you didn’t see. War turns everyone into an enigma, and this book gets that exactly right.
  • And anyone who likes the idea of young people flying planes, parachuting into war zones, sassing their interrogators, and cracking codes, all the while managing to find something hopeful in their surroundings and comrades. Basically, anyone who looks for something to hold on to in the worst of times.

So, do you want to read Code Name Verity? Do you live within a reasonable distance from me? Get in touch and I’ll try to get it to you tonight. I promise it’s good, and I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t appreciate the story and the characters. Anyway, it’s free. The worst that can happen is you might stay up a little too late, desperate to know what fate has in store for the heroines. Just know that while fate can be cruel and war always sucks, there are always brave people to celebrate. And I haven’t read about braver characters in a very long time.

Book Review of File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents by Lemony Snicket

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 8+

Some of you may not know this, but underneath all the fairytale infatuations and my ambitions of piracy, I’m a Voracious, Fervently Devoted admirer of Mr. Lemony Snicket’s life and work. (Actually, you all probably worked that one out for yourselves. I’ve been quite vocal about my enthusiasm for The Basic Eight and Why We Broke Up, penned by his “representative” Daniel Handler.) When I was slogging through the dreary days of middle-school, A Series Of Unfortunate Events instilled within me an appreciation for all sorts of gothic literature and a keen eye for mysterious circumstances. Those books were also largely responsible for my inherent distrust of adults. It’s the sort of series you can re-read time and time again; and I find that every time I return to it I recognize some wonderfully distressing references to literature and life which had flown right over my young head, despite the fact that I was tall and gangly for my age.

Nowadays I get to be that cryptic adult in the bookshop who recommends mysterious literary material to intrepid young browsers. How convenient for my secret plans that Lemony Snicket did not stop writing after his first series brought so many readers to the brink of despair. Who Could That Be At This Hour? and When Did You See Her Last? are high on my list of recommended reading. With those books on the shelf, I’m rarely at a loss for something thrilling and hilarious to sneak into the hands of a diminutive detective-to-be.

Snicket’s newer series, All The Wrong Questions, chronicles the earlier life of young Lemony: his baffling past as a volunteer in that secret society which loomed in the periphery of the Baudelaires’ lives. The books are written in a style inspired by noir detective fiction. Think hard-boiled private eyes on their own in a hostile world; enigmatic women and shady men in hats all triple-crossing our embittered hero as well as each other. There are cunning nods to the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett scattered everywhere, alongside a myriad of references to classic fiction and highly recommended kids’ books.

The series traces a big, complex mystery through a town called Stain’d-By-The-Sea, where commerce is rapidly dying and something nefarious lurks just out of sight by every corner, bakery, and rocking chair shop. Lemony Snicket and his chaperone – an amusingly inept adult member of the secret society – are meant to solve a mystery involving a stolen statue, a desperate young woman, an aging actress, and a coffee shop containing a player-piano rather than baristas. It’s hard to find answers, though, when everyone insists upon asking all the wrong questions. In the end, the children have to figure things out on their own while most adults waste time and, as usual, completely ignore common sense.

File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents is sort of a supplemental volume in the series. It takes place in Stain’d-By-The-Sea sometime during the course of Snicket’s investigations, but does not necessarily need to be read at one particular point in the series’ chronology. Rather than adding to the larger mystery, these thirteen suspicious incidents appear in a collection of reported cases and separate conclusions. Each short chapter stands on its own. Sub File One contains the thirteen mysteries themselves, relayed to us in Snicket’s distinctive voice. For those of us who loved the deadpan and ironic – though somewhat formulaic – humor in A Series Of Unfortunate Events, these new books are not a disappointment. (Aside from the obvious disappointments, like how justice and root beer floats aren’t served nearly as often as they should be.) Sub File B contains the conclusions. When you’re done reading the book, count the conclusions. There are more than thirteen. Suspicious indeed! Each self-contained whodunits is somewhere between five and twenty pages long; perfect for puzzling over a story or six before bed, or while waiting for one’s parent to finish swearing at the hardware store cashier.

Characters from All The Wrong Questions filter in and out of the short cases, because in a good noir piece the locals and strangers are just as responsible for a mysterious atmosphere as the shadowy setting itself. The frustrating Mitchum family fails to prevent crimes all over the place. Moxie puts her reporting skills to use and helps Snicket now and then. Dashiel Qwerty, the punk-rock librarian, seems to know just the right book for any occasion. Jake, at the diner, serves banana waffles right when they’re needed most. Even though Snicket’s character is just a kid when he narrates the book, his descriptions of people are as cynical and case-hardened as any full grown P.I. in a black and white feature.

“Think of something noble and true, like a librarian or a a good crisp apple or a sweater that doesn’t itch, and then think of the opposite, and that’s Stew Mitchum. He was a rat and a nuisance and many other troublesome words I knew, the sort of person who might dump a whole shaker on your head if you asked him to pass the salt.”

We also encounter a long list of new characters, as most mysteries require culprits; and victims; and red herrings; and wrong turns. I particularly liked Jackie, the young mechanic who is never referred to by a gendered pronoun (and – huzzah – this is not at all self-congratulatory), and two friends named Kevin and Florence who share pirate books and also possibly secrets. Some mysterious strangers remain mysterious. Some seemingly-benign individuals turn out to be quite sinister, and some suspicious figures are actually just trying to get on with their regular routine. I think Dashiel Qwerty articulates the general theme of the collection quite well in the very last mystery, entitled “Figure In Fog.”

” ‘Look at it this way, Snicket,’ Qwerty said as the fog kept rolling across the grass. ‘To a stranger in town, such as yourself, Stain’d-by-the-Sea is full of suspicious incidents. But to the people of Stain’d-by-the-Sea, you’re a suspicious incident yourself. You arrived out of the blue and live in a hotel suite with an adult who seems to be neither your parent nor your guardian. You ask a lot of questions about anything and everything, and anyone and everyone has questions about you. There are rumors you’re part of a secret organization. There are rumors you are in charge of an important investigation. But nobody really seems to have the foggiest notion what you’re up to.’ “

I think this is an interesting observation to apply to any mystery story, hard-boiled or otherwise. As usual, Lemony Snicket makes more astute observations while writing serialized children’s fiction than many writers for grown-ups do in their whole oeuvre. These solve-it-yourself stories are great fun and very accessible to young readers, of course. They remind me of the Meg Mackintosh mysteries I loved as a child, in which I would always try to figure out the solution before the big reveal. But though I’m no longer quite youthful enough to start an apprenticeship like Snicket’s, my age never once prevented me from appreciating every one of the Suspicious Incidents. The mysteries themselves might be fairly simplistic, but the sharp, dry humor in nearly each description and every line of dialogue has no age limit in its appeal.

I hope that Snicket’s fans of fewer years might follow this series by hunting down some noir detective fiction for themselves, with the assistance of their devoted local booksellers and vigilant librarians. As for myself, and any other nearly-adult readers returning to Mr. Snicket’s world with an air of nostalgia, there are plenty of subtle riddles and literary clues to mull over all morning as one’s oatmeal congeals and the newspaper goes unread. (Another reason to wish we were eating breakfast at Jake’s diner.)

File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents is a highly entertaining casebook, but it’s also a clever and worthwhile addition to the chronicles of Stain’d-by-the-Sea and the intricate world Lemony Snicket shares with us all. The plot might not be so detailed, and the ironic twists and turns might get repetitive after some time, but the formula works and the book concludes before it descends into a tiresome exercise. In a town where everyone has a trick up their sinister sleeves – where even sled races and pet lizards aren’t as wholesome as they might seem – we can trust young Lemony Snicket to doggedly pursue answers to whatever suspicious incidents waltz his way, even if those answers just unearth more questions and an awful lot of dry seaweed.

Book Review: Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Tam Lin is part of the “Fairy Tale Series” created by Terri Windling.

Star Ratings

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: ** (2 stars)

Plot: ** (2 stars)

Writing : *** (3 stars)

Overall: ** (2 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15 + (Mostly because the academic subject matter might be boring to many younger readers, not due to any particular graphic unpleasantness.)

I was so excited to finally read this book. It’s been on my shelf for so long, but I forced myself to wait until spring to start reading. Tam Lin is my favorite legend of all time (I guess it’s technically a ballad), and the story has inspired a whole bunch of really excellent novels and re-tellings. Was Pamela Dean’s version of the story worth the anticipation? Not entirely.

I know several different versions of the song, but they all follow the same general theme, which I have summarized here, for anyone who doesn’t know it. I discussed the characters and themes of the original ballads in a separate post from this one, because I already had way too much to say about this one book. Read that first if you aren’t familiar with the legend.  (Thoughts About Ballads: “Tam Lin” Re-tellings)

"Tam Lin - The Faery Host" by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

“Tam Lin – The Faery Host” by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

 

In Pamela Dean’s novel Tam Lin, the ballad’s general theme and storyline has been brought to a college campus in the 1970s. Janet starts her undergraduate studies, and she quickly makes friends with an arcane group of fellow students. The three boys she and her room-mates start to date, and the boys’ acquaintances, behave in a fashion which might be mysteriously esoteric and might just be pretentiously self-impressed. They are college freshmen and theatrical types, after all. In the midst of academic over-ambition; qualms about birth control; and relationship issues, Janet’s started to notice that things aren’t quite normal on campus. The Classics department has a habit of riding horses through the woods every Hallowe’en night to the sound of bagpipes. Nick, Robin, and Thomas are more comfortable arguing over Elizabethan plays than they are going on dates or discussing modern novels. The rumored ghost in Janet’s dorm building has been throwing books out the window, unless it’s someone playing a prank no one can quite understand. The boys are strangely beholden to one Professor Medeous, who is head of Classics – brilliant and manipulative – and a complete mystery. As Janet tries to puzzle over the anomalies on campus, she uncovers clues to a much older and more dangerous cycle of events which seems straight out of a fairy-tale. Her friends’ lives may be in danger, but to help them she’ll need to work out what happened at Blackstock in the previous century. On top of that serious mission, she’s got essays to write and Shakespeare to study!

The book is a long one. It describes Janet’s entire time at Blackstock college; four years of and then she took a class about poetry, and, the five of them sat around discussing Ancient Greek for a solid hour in the dining hall. (These are not direct quotes, because the real descriptions of class schedules and homework assignments sometimes feel like they go on for many pages.) Tam Lin is obviously, and unashamedly, an extensive love-letter to Pamela Dean’s college experience. I didn’t always see the point in the heavy focus on campus life, but I will say that her descriptions did make me feel as though I were right there with Janet in her dorm room, or puzzling over some text in the library, or taking the long way to the bridge to meet some troublesome lad. The thing is, I don’t think the fairy-tale elements of this novel quite justified the hundreds of pages about campus life. It was just too imbalanced for me.

To clarify: Pamela Dean obviously knows her ballads and legends like an absolute wizard. There are several subtle references to medieval British folklore sprinkled throughout the otherwise-mundane chapters of the novel. From the wreaths of symbolic flowers on Janet’s mysterious academic advisor’s door, to the prevalence of green clothing whenever something faintly magical gets suggested, I was always happy to notice a little nod to the old stories which the novel meant to emulate. There are probably a hundred references which I wasn’t sharp enough to catch, too, because in the game of How Many Obscure Literary/Academic/Classical References Can We Hide In One Text?, Tam Lin rivals T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land”. (Janet even first meets Nick over a shared love of that poem, and that just sets the stage for a bazillion other oh aren’t we a clever crew moments.) But unless you’re easily satisfied with minor hints of fairy activity, these occasional moments of mystical intrigue won’t be enough to keep you entirely engaged. The most otherworldly and exciting scenes took place whenever Janet and her friends went ghost hunting, or exploring at night to chase down the sound of bagpipes and spy on the Hallowe’en hunt. Alas, the unusual events they witness don’t nudge the plot into any truly spooky atmosphere.

It’s not until the book’s final hundred pages that the vague hints and scattered references draw together for a supernatural showdown. By that point, the story’s momentum is too bogged down in tedious information, and the action seemed to come from nowhere. A great many threads and plot lines get pulled into the novel: fairy-tale; ghost story; campus drama; literary tribute; coming-of-age story, but none of these aspects gets developed enough. Instead, we have to slog through too many pages of self-indulgent cleverness to get to the legend at the story’s heart. It’s all well and good for the story to be anchored in a fresh, modern setting – those re-tellings are usually my favorites – but if the readers get bored of homework and gratuitous scholarly musings before they even reach the story’s fantasy elements, they could miss the magical moments all together.

When adapting a folktale or legend, it’s really important that the characters retain the qualities which make them so memorable. In this case, Janet (or whomever her counterpart may be) needs to start out obstinate and entitled, but she should turn into a brave, compassionate heroine by the time she faces the Fairy Queen. Dean’s Janet starts out unbearably smug and never gets much better. She does improve a little, recognizing her faults and follies over the course of four years, but she doesn’t change enough to make us truly root for her. The ballad itself isn’t always terribly long, but in five minutes of singing the character of Janet can undergo a better transformation than she did in all four hundred pages of this novel. Also, for someone who wants to research and understand everything (Janet’s like a Hermione who never stops being a know-it-all), she manages to completely overlook all the signs that Fairyland might be at work in her University. Time traveling crosses her mind, and she’s happily inquisitive about ghosts, so it’s a little hard to believe that she’d never heard Fairport Convention’s version of the song, which had been popular only a few years before the story starts. In fairness to our heroine, Dean does make use of the fairy magic confuses mortals trick, and while this slows the plot to a snail’s pace it does, at least, fit nicely with the genre. Janet’s good qualities – her inquisitive nature, her steadfast determination, and her wits – were completely over-shadowed, for me, by her constant need to be the smartest person in the room and the slight brattishness which never really turns into bravery.

Thomas –the Tam Lin of this version – is actually a fairly good character, both in his own right and in conjunction with the ballad. He doesn’t exactly stand around guarding a forest all day, but the mortal trapped by fairies vibe is right on target once the plot finally gets to work. He can’t seem to graduate, distrusts his friends, and has trouble saying what he means. Dean describes his despair and his enthrallment very well. Thomas’s scenes gave me hope that the parallels between the novel’s namesake and the events unfolding would get clearer. Unfortunately, they did not.

In my opinion, the Fairy Queen should be the coolest character in the story. In the ballads, her scene is my absolute favorite. She can start out as a complete mystery, as the stunning but volatile Classics professor does in the novel, but she absolutely must have a strong personality and embody the traits which are inherent to the legacy of her character. I tend to judge re-tellings by their Fairy Queen, and this one fell disastrously short on that account. We very rarely see the Fairy Queen figure, so her role in the story is largely sustained by other characters’ conversations about her. I know that’s how we learn about her in the ballad, too, but two lines in the song manage to convey an aura of power and dread more distinctly than all the prose-y conversations in this book. Maybe the stakes just weren’t high enough, or the action built up far too quickly out of nothing to create the necessary aura of unearthly menace. Even when delivering my favorite lines, it felt like the character was simply reciting from a hasty script. There is always a scripted nature to any re-telling – a formula the author chooses to follow to a certain degree – but since Pamela Dean ignored most of that formula until the end, when it took over the plot rather too conveniently, I see no reason why the Queen couldn’t have been suitably impressive.

Most minor characters were fairly realistic and reasonably likable, but it just felt like I was eavesdropping on some overzealous undergraduates in a Harvard Square cafe. Janet’s family is delightful – (what a relief, since I really like the kind father part of the ballad) – and her scenes at home do manage to provide her character with some redeeming qualities. The twist at the end makes up for some muddled personalities, keeping in mind that we see everything from Janet’s point-of-view so when she’s confused, we’re confused. The characters who had some connection to the ghost were far more intriguing than those with fey-like qualities, but that’s the opposite of what I’d prefer. Fairyland’s denizens can be inscrutable puzzles and still keep the reader enthralled, but the eldritch members of Blackwood’s faculty and students just seemed wooden and shallow. I didn’t care enough about any of them besides Thomas and, sometimes, his friends.

Maybe my disappointment is due to unrealistic expectations. I would love to know how the book feels to someone who wasn’t in love with the original ballad before they started reading. As a coming-of-age campus novel and nothing more, Tam Lin would still have issues with pacing and character development. But the descriptions of college life in the 1970s – the issues of sexual awakening, scholarly ambitions, and young people on their own for the first time – could possibly interest some readers enough to justify the imbalance between so many mundane details and the underdeveloped supernatural elements. Terri Windling’s introduction and especially the Author’s Note at the end of the book do provide some explanations about the story’s peculiar direction, and I appreciated Dean’s choices a little more after learning what inspired her. Anyone who tries the novel should make sure to read those, as well. These notes won’t entirely excuse the bad pacing and unlikable characters, but they do provide some context and several interesting observations about the ballad itself.

Tam Lin wasn’t a terrible book, despite all my complaints. I did read all the way to the end, and the subtle mysteries building around Blackstock were interesting enough that I cared to find out what Janet would discover. I liked solving bits of the puzzle before she did – recognizing symbols from the ballad – and I liked the twist at the end. Ultimately, though, I spent most of my time reading the book white-knuckled from frustration rather than suspense. There are better books out there which have covered the two main styles of Tam Lin. If you want a thoughtful; twisting; incredibly well-researched modern adaption of the ballad, read Dianna Wynne Jones’s Fire & Hemlock. That’s got a billion and twelve folklore references in it, too, but both the magic and the real world are far more intriguing. For anyone after a twisted and highbrow story of undergrad Classics students in way over their heads, read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Tam Lin is a heavy-handed combination of the two genres, and while I would recommend it to devout fans of either genre and/or the 1970s, the novel just doesn’t live up to the legacy of its title.

Thoughts About Ballads: “Tam Lin” Re-tellings

“Tam Lin” is a Scottish ballad which has been adapted into a great many songs and stories. There are many different versions of the ballad, all of which follow the same general plot and central characters. My favorite musical recordings of the song are probably those by Fairport Convention and Tricky Pixie, though there are countless others out there for your Youtubing pleasure. If you want to look at a large selection of the ballad variations, have a scroll through this page. “Tam Lin” is Child Ballad #39, and the story is still well-known today. I’ve summarized the general story here, based on my own favorite versions.

tam lin

Tam Lin – The Faery Host by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

The legend: Janet, daughter of the lord who owns the land, breaks the rule never to go to Carterhaugh and picks a forbidden rose there. The woods are off-limits because, as the song tells us at its opening, young Tam Lin guards the place and takes either the green mantles or maidenhead of any girl who trespasses. Tam Lin appears to Janet, demanding why she’s come to Carterhaugh without his permission, and she retorts (rather smarmily, in some versions) that she can come and go as she pleases because she was given Carterhaugh by her father.

The ballads usually gloss over the following events, but it seems that Tam Lin likes her defiant/entitled spirit, and she falls for him too (once he stops shouting at her about flowers, I assume). The point is: things get consummated in the woods. Probably a little mossy, and most certainly a bit surprised by the un-planned direction of her afternoon, Janet returns to her father’s hall. It quickly becomes obvious that she’s pregnant, but Janet refutes everyone’s curiosity about who the baby’s father might be by declaring that her lover was an Elfin knight, who she’d not trade for any knight of her father’s human court.

After nine months, our forthright and loyal lassie returns to Carterhaugh (sometimes she’s looking for an abortive herb at this stage), and asks Tam Lin how he got stuck guarding the forest in the first place. It turns out he was kidnapped by the Fairy Queen and has become a human member of her court; he haunts Carterhaugh at the Queen’s bidding. Tam Lin also tells Janet that every seven years the Queen must pay a tithe to Hell, sacrificing a member of her court. Being a human, handsome, and one of the Queen’s favorite knights, he is almost certain that the sacrifice this year will be himself. Janet’s not keen to let the Fairy Queen give her lover over to the fiends of Hell. When Tam Lin tells her that she might be able to save him if she yanks him from his horse as the Fairy Host rides through the woods on Hallowe’en, she gets all heroic despite the added inconvenience of being incredibly pregnant.

At Miles Cross, Janet waits on a stormy night to witness the court go riding by. As Tam Lin had instructed, she lets the black horses pass by, and then the brown, and when she sees the white horse at the end of the procession she pulls the rider down. The faeries turn Tam Lin into all sorts of horrible creatures in an attempt to force Janet to release her hold on him: lions, snakes, bears – it varies from song to song but they’re always mean and bite-y. But she was warned of this, too, and hangs on. Even when Tam Lin turns into a burning brand in her hands, she holds fast, and eventually he turns back into himself, naked and rather bedraggled, and she covers him with her green mantle. The end of this action is usually the end of the narrative.

The Fairy Queen almost always ends the song with some bitter and imperious line about how she would have turned Tam Lin’s heart to stone; or his body into a tree; or taken out his eyes, had she known what would transpire that night. We’re left to assume that Janet and Tam Lin limp off into the night to figure out their unnatural family dynamic in peace, while the Fairy court presumably has some last-minute alterations to make to their plan.

It’s a wonderful ballad, with several important symbols and elements which make it work out both as a piece of fairy-lore and as a compelling story. You need the forbidden woods to be mysterious, and their guardian Tam Lin to be both powerful and vulnerable: frightened for his own life while still in touch with Fairy land’s magic. Janet’s got to be youthfully hot-headed at the beginning, and turn into a brave, compassionate heroine by Hallowe’en. The ballad might be named after Tam Lin, but the story’s actually about Janet. I think that her behavior upon learning that she’s pregnant is incredibly important: Janet’s not going to be bullied by the expectations of stuffy old court traditions. She’s comfortable with herself and generally the sort of leading lady you want to cheer for.

Most importantly, in my opinion, the scene at Miles Cross needs to be dangerous and otherworldly, so that Janet’s bravery in the face of the Fairy Court can be properly appreciated. The Fairy Queen is one of my favorite characters out of every myth, legend, and ballad I’ve ever encountered. She doesn’t ascribe to mere human manners or morals, but there are folkloric conventions her character really ought to fulfill. The Queen of the Fairy Court – sometimes specified as the Unseelie Court – should be powerful, impatient, and utterly self-obsessed. (You see why we would get along.) The dangers of crossing this lady cannot be taken lightly, so her formidable presence highlights Tam Lin’s peril and Janet’s courage.

Finally, the rules and magical logic which apply to freeing a knight from the Fairy Court are steeped in tradition and very important. Various interpretations of the story change up the forms Tam Lin takes, but the point is that Janet holds on. She gets beaten, bitten, bruised, and burned, with whole host of immortal creatures watching her agony from horseback. But fairy stories are governed by tests and loopholes, so when she wins her love fairly, there’s naught the court can do. Names are always important in fairy stories. Promises are binding and when you’re forbidden from speaking or moving you’d better hold your tongue and stand very still. Just as characters in these songs and tales must follow the twisted rules which create their world, so should re-worked interpretations pay attention to the necessary patterns. A novel which draws on any folk ballad or legend can change all sorts of characters and plot points to its heart’s content, in my opinion, as long as the canon functions of Fairyland get their due respect. Sometimes authors bend the rules, and when it’s cleverly done those alterations are exciting. If bits and pieces of similar stories are wisely, cleverly sampled to form one big narrative, the results can be spectacular; Fire & Hemlock contains threads from “Tam Lin,” and “Thomas the Rhymer,” all twisted into one big ol’ gorgeous novel. It’s frustrating when an author ignores vital parts of the folkloric tradition just to suit their own convenience, especially when drawing inspiration from such a well-known ballad as “Tam Lin,” but any story with hints of Fairy’s sinister, timeless magic is worth investigating.

Below are some of books inspired by “Tam Lin” which I’ve read. There are so many different versions of the ballad itself, so certain themes are more prevalent in each authors’ writing style. Not everything inspired by the ballad is necessarily a faithful re-telling; some of these books just borrow from the plot or make use of the key elements. Tithes to Hell, forbidden woods, and angry Fairy Queens tend to make for an interesting story. Anyone with books to add to the list and opinions to share should speak up in the comments, because I’m always on the hunt for more to read on the subject.

Books I’ve Read:

Fire & Hemlock by Dianna Wynne Jones

souce: goodreads

One of my favorite fantasy novels, making a near-perfect use of all those mythical rules I went on about, and then twisting them in the best of ways. Even though the main character is a child for most of the book, it is (and should be) a favorite amongst adult fantasy enthusiasts. I love that Polly recognizes the similarities between her own adventure and the old ballads, and uses this to her advantage. Very highly recommended to anyone who likes their stories to be full of layered inferences to the old stories and songs.

Tithe by Holly Black

source: goodreads

Again, a book which includes certain characters and plot points of the ballad without being a thorough re-telling. Good, gritty YA with a firm grasp on fairy lore. I loved Tithe as a pre-teen and still think it’s pretty great. The Fairy Courts (both Seelie and Unseelie) are described particularly well.

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

source: wikipedia

You can read my full rant and review here, in its own post. Pamela Dean’s book contains interesting allusions to the old folk stories and songs, which are fun to hunt for through the pages, but with a title so obviously referencing the ballad I was disappointed with the re-telling. The action of the ballad is set on a college campus in the 1970’s, over the course of Janet’s four years as an undergraduate. Rather than just borrowing from the legend, Tam Lin enticed me with the idea of a thorough re-telling with connections between nearly every character and plot point. Unfortunately, it felt imbalanced with too much homework and not enough of a magical atmosphere.

Added July 13, 2014: Thorn Jack by Katherine Harbour

I read Thorn Jack without so many expectations, after learning my lesson with Dean’s Tam Lin.  Despite some immature writing and a bothersome romance, I really liked it.  Goes to show that it’s better to read with an open mind.  Thorn Jack borrows from the Tithe aspect of Tam Lin, and has a magnificent Faery Court disguised as wealthy young people.  The plot twists away from the ballad’s original pattern, borrowing an awful lot from Celtic faery mythology to create a huge (and sometimes confusing) cast of minor characters.  The references to Tam Lin are pretty good, and it was a fun book despite the clutter.  My full review is here.

Books inspired by “Tam Lin” which I haven’t read yet include:

The Perilous Guard by Elizabeth Marie Pope

Winter Rose by Patricia A. McKillip

The Mirk and Midnight Hour by Jane Nickerson

Which of these should I read first? Suggestions? Opinions? Books I’ve not yet heard of that I need to track down ASAP? I’m always excited to read another take on my favorite fairy story – be it literary fiction or pulp fantasy or something in between – so please chime in with whatever comes to mind.

I feel like I’ve saturated the blog with fairytales and folklore this spring, so maybe it’s time for some other subjects, soon. I hope my unofficial Fairy Fest, 2014 hasn’t been too unbearable for those of you who prefer cutlasses to curses. Swashbuckling heroics and clever kid’s books are on the way, I promise. For now, I’ve just got to wait out this folklore virus and enjoy every page of it.