“James Antioch Morgan,” the king of the dead said, and when he sang out James’ name, it sounded like music. “You will be called to make a choice. Make the right one.”
James’ eyes glittered in the darkness. “Which is the right one?”
“The one that hurts,” Cernunnos said.
No one walked away unscathed from the events of Lament: The Faerie Queen’s Deception. James bears physical scars, along with a persistent torch for Deirdre, who only sees him as a friend. Dee, meanwhile, is pining for Luke and spiraling into depression. James and Dee think the faerie folk are through with them, but when they begin classes at Thornking-Ash, a residential fine-arts high school, trouble follows them there.
James finds himself tangled up with the faery Nuala. Nuala is a leanan sidhe, a type of faerie that inspires men to artistic genius but drains them of their life force. Maggie Stiefvater adds some haunting twists to the leanan sidhe legend. Nuala is disdained in faerie society, physically can’t create any art of her own, and worst of all, faces a horrible fate unless James can somehow save her. Add in some nasty politicking from the new faerie queen, and a mysterious horned man singing at the edge of the Thornking-Ash campus, and James has plenty of dangers to face.
Dee has a plot of her own here, too, and Stiefvater makes the unusual choice of placing most of Dee’s plotline “offscreen.” We mostly see her through James’ and Nuala’s eyes and through a series of text messages that she composes but doesn’t send. She’s a lot less sympathetic here than she was in Lament, but at the same time, it’s obvious that she’s on the verge of breaking down.
For the most part, I loved this deeper exploration into the character of James. There are a few scenes early in Ballad where he just doesn’t ring true to me as a teenage boy, as if the female voice, or maybe the more-mature voice, was bleeding through too much. (Shiver’s Sam had a bit of this issue as well, but his upbringing was so unusual that it bothered me less.) But as the story got rolling, Stiefvater seemed to really hit her stride with James. His snarky sense of humor is wonderful and deployed in just the right places. I also enjoyed Nuala’s chapters. Her growing desire to do the right thing is beautiful, and she also provides an inside view of the twisted faerie world. The cast is rounded out by some great secondary characters, especially James’ roommate Paul and a young, hip English teacher with a tantalizing backstory.
Thornking-Ash is yet another interesting element. There’s more to this school, as it turns out, than meets the eye. You’ll probably like it if you liked Pamela Dean‘s Tam Lin. (Despite Ballad‘s contemplative pace, though, it’s much more compact than Tam Lin, so you may also like Ballad if you thought Dean took too long to get to the faerie stuff.)
James’, Nuala’s, and Dee’s story arcs lead to the same place, a tense climax that threatens to destroy all of the characters we’ve come to love. And like the protagonists of Lament and Shiver, success or failure hinges on whether the characters have the courage to make impossibly hard decisions. This may be my favorite aspect of Stiefvater’s novels. You don’t “win” by having bigger guns or stronger magical powers, but only by being willing to do the right thing even when it hurts.
And if you want to read Ballad, I can’t think of a better time of year to do it:
It was a gorgeous fall afternoon, the sort companies like to print on glossy paper, and my vantage point on the hill seemed to exacerbate its beauty like one of those convex mirror cameras they have at malls to watch for shoplifters. The afternoon was all scudding clouds and woodsmoke-scented wind and a brilliant blue sky so huge it closed the hill in its own cerulean bubble.