"The Ballad of Tam Lin" is worked into this story as it is sung by a minstrel telling the story of how Janet rescued Tam from the Queen of the Faeries. This plays into the lives of the characters in this novel as they find themselves in a similar situation.
During 16th century England Kate Sutton is exiled to a mysterious fortress called Elvenwood Manor but historically referred to as the Perilous Gard. As soon as she arrives she is drawn into the life of another of the castle's inhabitants, Christopher Heron the younger brother of the owner. He is haunted by the disappearance and presumed death of his niece which he feels is his fault. Kate and Christopher soon discover that the young girl is not as dead or lost as presumed. When Christopher trades his own freedom and life for that of his niece, Kate also finds herself a captive and in the position of having to rescue them both.
Kate Sutton is one of my favorite heroines of all time. She is an average looking girl who has lived her life in the shadow of her beautiful and vivacious younger sister. Her sister is a dimwitted flibbertigibbet who does something really stupid, but Kate is the one Queen Mary exiles to the north of England. Kate is intelligent, stubborn, reliable, practical and is not easy to intimidate. She knows how to keep her wits about her in dangerous situations. So it turns out it was a good thing she was the one exiled. The Perilous Gard and its inhabitants would have made mince meat out of her sister. Kate refuses to accept the explanations of other people and wants to discover the facts of things for herself. Her calm practicality and common sense often drive Christopher demented but those qualities are what he needs from her. She is not the kind of female who can be controlled or easily manipulated. As a result she finds herself taken captive into the land of the Fair Folk right along with Christopher and she is their only hope for an escape.
In Christopher Heron Elizabeth Marie Pope did what no other Tam Lin novelist has been able to, she created a hero who was sympathetic, interesting and likable all at once. Christopher is spoiled, arrogant, sarcastic, dramatic and likes to wallow in his own melancholy a little too much. His arrogance is the cotton wool in which he wraps all his insecurities and he clings to it and uses it to keep people at arm's length. Christopher also has a will of iron and the inner strength to carry out the actions he deems necessary. He has a great deal of love for his brother and niece and is willing to sacrifice himself for their happiness. His stubbornness actually exceeds Kate's which leads to some interesting (and entertaining) interactions between the two.
The Lady, Queen of the Fair Folk, and her people are fascinating. Kate actually lives with and serves them for a time so they are a more central part of this story, rather than being a distant threat. Who they are and what they are about is brought into question. In fact, this version of the story could be considered straight out historical fiction given how they are presented. There is a tense and heated confrontation between the Lady and Kate over the question of the necessity of human sacrifice in which Kate gives one of the most concise and clear presentations of the person of Christ I have ever read in fiction. At the same time Kate has lived with these people and allowed them to teach her some of their ways. She respects them and enjoys some of their customs while abhorring others.
The climax of the story on All Hallow's Eve plays out very differently than the one in the ballad. The relationship between Janet and Tam is a physical one. The totality of who they are together is achieved through their bodies. They are tied to each other through Janet's pregnancy. It makes sense then that her rescue of him would be so physically demanding. She has to pull him from his horse and hold on for dear life as he changes shape in her arms. In contrast to that, the relationship between Kate and Christopher is emotional and intellectual. They come to know each other over nights of conversations had in Christopher's prison. There is a mesh gate between them the whole time so they can't touch. It is pitch black darkness so they can't see. They know each other by the sounds and intonations of their voices. They are connected to each other through the thoughts, dreams and plans they have woven talking to each other through hours in the nights they have shared. Kate's rescue of Christopher reflects this. It is her voice that reaches and holds him and it is what she says, unique to Kate, that breaks him free of what binds him. I love this contrast and I love this scene so much for how it reflects both their characters and how they need each other.
There is some truly magnificent dialogue, particularly between Kate and Christopher.
The end contains what is one of the most romantic (not to mention amusing) declarations of love and marriage proposals ever written.