What a delightful journey into whimsy, but with serious themes.
Using an omniscient point of view reminiscent of Austen or Dickens, Leslie weaves magic, mythology, philosophy and romance into a story about the love between Janet Dunbar and John Roxburgh, aka Tam Lin. The story is set in 1790's Scotland and a timeless place called Summmerland.
The book captured my imagination, carrying me along with it. At times I cringed with embarrassment for the characters, at other times I laughed with them. They really pulled me in - even though I have to confess that I didn't like Tam Lin or Janet much as people in the beginning. They grew on me as we progressed together.
In fact, perhaps a warning here: In the beginning, Tam Lin is very shallow and obsessed with sex and seduction above all else (although the novel never gets explicit) and Janet comes across as naive and silly (although the author is trying to create an impression that she is pure and childlike). Because of this I was tempted to stop reading, but the story - the need to know what happened - kept me engaged. I was not sorry. Janet toughens up into a feisty heroine and Tam Lin learns a few very humbling lessons. By the end of the book I liked Janet. A lot. But to be honest, I still wasn't sold on Tam Lin. Why? His reasons and motivations for his obsession with sex and his terrible treatment of Janet, while explained, are not enough for me to warm to him. I doubt his integrity and do not trust his final declarations of love for Janet. But as this is the first in a series of books, perhaps this is what the author intended. The other characters are all strong and believable.
The descriptions of Summerland and the elfin people who live there are quite charming, successfully suspending unbelief. I saw myself there. It was perfectly believable to me that there could be a parallel world or time-frame, divided from the 'real' world by gossamer veils. From a 'theological' point of view, I don't ascribe to the belief in Daniu and Dagdanh as deities, but that in no way detracts from the mythology of the story. And the hell-thing was very well described and quite terrifying.
The author is a master of descriptive prose and her language flows beautifully. There is definitely an Austen influence in her writing. This does not make it an easy, or light read, but for those who enjoy beautiful language, it is well worth the effort. It is also not a quick read. If you are looking for fast-paced, action-filled writing, this is not it.
When I first started the book I had some reservations - the book runs to 465 pages including a glossary of terms. I always worry about novels which come with glossaries, but my fear on that score was ungrounded. I did not need to refer to it once, although the dialogue is 'broad Scots'- except for Janet who has had a 'classical' education. I was very impressed with the Scottish dialogue. It certainly set the tone for the novel and I was thinking in 'Scottish' as I read the book. It was consistent and believable throughout.
All in all, I found the book to be an engaging, enjoyable read, well worth the money. Would I recommend The Ballad of the Young Tam Lin? Most definitely.