Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie is the much-anticipated (and equally compelling) sequel to Maggie Stiefvater's Lament: The Faerie Queen's Deception. Lament introduced Deirdre Monaghan, a human girl revealed to have the power to draw the faerie to her. Deirdre is loved, in unrequited fashion, by her long-time best friend, James Morgan. In my review of Lament, I said: "Despite the first-person narration, I actually had a harder time getting a fix on Deirdre herself than on some of the other characters." Therefore, I was perfectly happy to learn that Deirdre is not the viewpoint character for Ballad. Instead, Ballad is told in alternating chapters narrated by James and by an outcast faerie called Nuala. We see only hints of Dee's viewpoint, in text messages that she writes (but doesn't actually send) to James. This works well, because James is a highly sympathetic narrator, and Nuala, while not initially sympathetic, is complex and intriguing.
As Ballad begins, James and Deirdre are both attending a private boarding school for talented musicians. James, a piper, is in fact so talented that the school doesn't quite know what to do with him. It is his talent for music that draws Nuala to him. James and Deirdre are not at the school for very long before strange things start happening, and the faerie start to gather round. That's all I'm going to say about the plot, because Ballad is a book that should be experienced, rather than described.
I love James' voice. He is cocky, sarcastic, and philosophical. Despite his feelings for Deirdre, and the power that she has to hurt him, he never feels like a victim. Stiefvater walks a tricky line between conveying James' love for Dee (not to mention his affinity towards the faerie), and making him still feel like a teenage boy. I think that she succeeds. I flagged passages from James throughout the book. Here are a few:
"The brochures whispered tales of us emerging from high school as multitalented superteens sporting academic skills, who would slay Ivy League applications with a single thrust of our extracurriculars." (Page 4)
"Even if I hadn't been somewhat preoccupied by the iciness trickling along my skin, I wouldn't have listened. People talk to much, and generally if you listen to the first thing they say and the last, the middle will take care of itself." (Page 7)
"The girl--if that was even what she was--flicked her incandescent blue eyes, made even more brilliant by the dusky shadows beneath them, toward my face, looking intensely bored. "I've been waiting for you forever."
When she spoke, the smell of her breath clouded around me, all drowsy nodding wildflowers and recent rain and distant wood smoke. Danger prickled softly around the region of my belly button. I hazarded a question. "'Forever' as in several hundred years, or forever as in since my lesson began?"" (Page 27)
"I had a love-hate relationship with the dorms. They were independence: the freedom to leave your crap on the floor and eat Oreoes for breakfast three days in a row (which isn't a good idea--you always end up with black chunks in your teeth during your first few classes). They were also camaraderie: seventy-five guys thrown into one building together meant you couldn't throw a rock without hitting a musician with balls.
But they were also brutal, claustrophobic, exhausting." (Page 66)
I could listen to James talk all day. Nuala's voice is quite different. She's angry and defensive, scarred from bitter experiences. I never had trouble keeping straight which of the two was narrating (often a problem in a book with alternating viewpoints), though I find in looking back that nearly all of the passages that I flagged belonged to James. Except this:
"And just like that, I had been announced. As insidious as the fast, primitive beat, the words were passed from dancer to dancer, and I felt eyes on me as I moved through the crowd. I was not just any solitary fey, I was the leanan sidhe. Lowest of the low. Nearly human.
"I didn't know dancing was one of your talents," called a faerie as she whirled by me. She and her friends were no taller than my hip, and their laughter stung like bees. I watched them spin for a moment, their feet falling unerringly with the driving drumbeat, until I saw her tail peek from under her gauzy green dress.
My smile was a snarl. "I didn't realize talking was one of your talents. I didn't think monkeys could speak."" (Page 42)
Reading Ballad is like being somehow in the middle of a complex dance between two talented, occasionally unpredictable partners. The plot starts off slowly, and then builds to a rapid crescendo. Stiefvater's writing is lyrical and compelling throughout. Ballad has a dark, atmospheric feel - as though it's rainy or misty throughout the book. It's the perfect story to curl up with on a chilly fall afternoon. Fans of Lament will, I think, like Ballad even better.
For those new to the series, I would recommend reading Lament before reading Ballad - while the stories are quite distinct, Ballad would probably be confusing without Lament's world-building. (Not to mention that Ballad's mere set-up is a spoiler for the ending of Lament). They are fairly advanced reads, in terms of dramatic structure, complexity of the characters' motives, and use of symbolism. I would definitely classify them more for high school than middle school. But for strong readers who are fans of paranormal, romantic fiction, Lament and Ballad are must-read books. Highly recommended.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.