I love that each of the novels in Alex Bledsoe’s TUFA series can stand alone. They are all set (at least partly) in the same area of Appalachia and have overlapping characters, but they each tell a self-contained story. They can be read in any order, though it would probably be ideal to read them in publication order: The Hum and the Shiver, Wisp of a Thing, Long Black Curl and now, Chapel of Ease (2016).
Chapel of Ease begins in New York City. Our hero, Matt Johansson, is an actor who’s been asked to try out for a major role in an off-Broadway musical written by Ray Parrish, a mostly unknown genius composer who Matt is attracted to as soon as he sees him. The musical is about something buried in the Chapel of Ease which is hidden in a forest in the Appalachian Mountains where Ray grew up. When Matt has the opportunity to visit Ray’s relatives, he hopes to uncover the secrets of the Chapel of Ease. When he meets the Tufa who claim to be descended from the ancient tuatha de danann, he discovers that music is the key to their magic.
Most readers who enjoyed the previous TUFA novels will also enjoy Chapel of Ease. Once Matt arrives in Tennessee, the story takes on the same kind of eerie atmosphere that the previous novels had. There is a sense of squalidness, despondency, and desperate menace that pervades the scenery — the type you’d expect in a run-down close-minded Appalachian town. Being a gay actor from New York City, Matt feels completely out of place and even threatened… until the singing and dancing begins. Then he discovers that music has a power he never imagined it could have. Not only does it fuel the special magic of the Tufa, but it has the ability to transcend cultural boundaries and forge connections between people who seem to have nothing else in common.
Ghosts (which the Tufa call “haints”) play a large role in this story. At first Matt doesn’t believe in ghosts but by the end of the story, he is wondering if ghosts can influence the behavior of the people they leave behind. I didn’t find the musical, the ghost story, or the mystery of what’s buried in the chapel to be too compelling, but I don’t think the plot was supposed to be the focus. Instead, Chapel of Ease is a “character-driven” romance and many readers will appreciate that Bledsoe chose to feature mostly homosexual relationships in this novel.
I had a couple of very small complaints about Chapel of Ease. One scene toward the end is pretty cheesy (it’s a dance-off) and I thought there were some inconsistencies with how the attitudes of the Tufa toward homosexuality were portrayed. At first the Tufa seem intolerant — Matt is warned not to tell anyone he’s gay, and another gay character seems to be hiding the truth about his sexuality from the Tufa — but later we’re told that the Tufa are not really intolerant. But these are minor quibbles about a novel that’s really about the romance.
I listened to Blackstone Audio’s version of Chapel of Ease which is almost 9 hours long. Stefan Rudnicki was a perfect choice to perform this one and I was completely convinced I was listening to Matt tell his story. Matt is a likeable character — definitely the star of this book. I hope we’ll be seeing more of him in future TUFA stories.