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Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary
Pamela Dean
Tor Books, 350 pages

Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary
Pamela Dean
Pamela Dean is author of The Secret Country (Ace, 1985), The Hidden Land (Ace, 1986), Tam Lin (Tor, 1991) and The Dubious Hills (Tor 1994), among others.

Pamela Dean Website
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A review by Margo MacDonald

Ever known one of those people who has a quote for every occasion? Ever notice how annoying it gets after a while? Now imagine a book where not only every character goes around quoting from things at random but where there is actually one character who speaks nothing but quotes. Imagine how annoying that could get. If you can't imagine, then read Pamela Dean's new book. If you can imagine it, then consider yourself forewarned.

If you've read Tam Lin then you'll be familiar with Dean's penchant for quoting literary works through the mouths of characters. Somehow though, this behaviour seemed much more fitting in that university setting amongst English majors than it does in her latest book where the three main characters are between the ages of 11 and 17. Even given the fact that they are supplied with hyper-intelligent/creative/capable parents, it just isn't believable somehow that these young girls would run around quoting obscure playwrights and poets and, moreover, that everyone listening catches the reference!

Even harder to take, though, is the dark, menacing neighbour who stalks people and speaks nothing but quotes -- and yet, somehow, nobody thinks he's a raving psychopath! (Of course, maybe they do so much of it themselves that it seems commonplace to them.)

The story is based on an old Scottish ballad (which I would have liked to have seen printed in the back of the book as a reference) of how the devil (or maybe just a minor prince of hell -- it is not made clear) comes to prey upon three young sisters. And how they outsmart him. Dean's version is set in the modern day and the story is told from the point of view of the middle sister, Gentian, who is devoted to astronomy and has a close circle of friends who weave in and out of the plot. One day a mysterious house appears in the formerly empty lot next door and no one can quite remember how it got there. One of the inhabitants of this new house is a beautiful young man (the one who only speaks quotations) who insinuates himself into the lives of Gentian and her sisters.

The most disappointing thing of all about this book, however, is not so much the obsessive quoting, but rather that it has real potential that isn't fulfilled. Dean builds up a brooding foreshadowing of doom until you can see the characters sliding down that proverbial slope, doing that typical human-being thing of rationalizing and explaining away all the weirdness popping up around them. Dean also expertly builds relationships between Gentian and her friends which are real, deep and compelling. I found that this quality kept me reading the book long after the plot had failed to keep me interested.

Unfortunately, all this build-up goes to waste. So many threads of ideas are left to dangle that I feel somewhat cheated. (To give an example, half of the book focuses on Gentian's astronomy but this is never tied in to the main plot of her struggle with the mysterious neighbour.) The ending of the book feels rushed and does not match the style of the previous chapters. All of the sudden vital and surprising pieces of information are announced, of which there was but one small measly clue in the whole of the book previously. Feels to me like, as she wrote it, the story carried the author so far away from her original goal that the ending she had already written didn't work anymore but she used it anyway.

I really enjoyed Pamela Dean's Tam Lin and The Dubious Hills and had looked forward to reading this book with much anticipation. While I enjoyed the relationships of the characters and the emotional life of the main character in particular, I am unable to overcome my disappointment in the book as a whole. It is sad to see so much potential and good writing go to waste.

Copyright © 1998 by Margo MacDonald

Margo has always been drawn toward fantasy and, at the age of 5, decided to fill her life with it by pursuing a career as a professional actress. Aside from theatre (and her husband), Margo's passion has been for books. Her interests are diverse and eclectic, but the bulk fall within the realm of speculative fiction. She tells us that her backlog has reached 200 books and she's ready to win the lottery and retire.

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