June 08, 2010

Sweet Baby James (Review: Ballad by Maggie Stiefvater)

Maggie Stiefvater

In this mesmerizing sequel to Lament: The Faerie Queen's Deception, music prodigy James Morgan and his best friend, Deirdre, join a private conservatory for musicians. James' musical talent attracts Nuala, a soul-snatching faerie muse who fosters and feeds on the creative energies of exceptional humans until they die. Composing beautiful music together unexpectedly leads to mutual admiration and love. Haunted by fiery visions of death, James realizes that Deirdre and Nuala are being hunted by the Fey and plunges into a soul-scorching battle with the Queen of the Fey to save their lives.
(Blurb courtesy of Goodreads)

I was pretty sure that I would like this book – I loved Lament and am a big fan of Maggie's writing style.  Sure enough, I thought it was really good and also refreshingly different from Lament - a worthy companion rather than a sequel. While Lament focuses on Dee and her relationship with mysterious stranger Luke, Ballad changes protagonist to her best friend, James. James was almost (although not quite) a mere bit player in Lament, providing light relief and secure familiarity when required. Not without his own odd abilities (he has a slight sixth sense about things...particularly fae things) or talent, Ballad finds him starting at the same exclusive music conservatory as Dee. A school which seems to have more than it's fair share of singing antler-headed creatures and one rather persistent faery, Nuala.

Dee doesn't appear much in the book, although we regularly see text messages that she writes to James and then never sends. She is clearly depressed and being drawn further and further towards the world of the Fae, yet I found it hard to feel much sympathy towards her. Despite the fact that I really liked her in Lament, her treatment of James in Ballad is so thoughtless and selfish that it is quite hard to feel bad for her. Nuala, on the other hand, is easy to like. She is a pretty interesting character study of a Fae who seems almost human in her emotions and is also an enigma who only ever gets to live 16 years, figuring out who she is only in time for it all to be taken from her. She is drawn by James' musical talent and they initially have a pretty antagonistic relationship which slowly blossoms into believable friendship, grudging respect and even mutual dependency. I really wanted her to hang around and the best passages of Ballad are the ones in which she is present.

However, this is truly James' story. Still recovering from the events of Lament he approaches his new life at Thorn-King Ash armed with knowledge of things he would rather forget and a wariness which you sense is new to his otherwise sunny personality. He is extremely funny, super smart and fascinating to read. It is a true delight to be inside his head as it is such an interesting place to be - I really wanted to figure out just what made him tick. His unrequited feelings for Dee are not awash with angst, but presented in a pragmatic manner very much in keeping with his character. Also, I'm Scottish and I am pretty sure that is against the rules for me to dislike anyone who plays the bagpipes. The story running through Ballad is as much about James' personal journey as it is about the ministrations of the Fae. The development of his character is integral to the plot, with the kindness and sense of right and wrong that made him such a good friend to Dee now enabling him to move away from her without ever seeming cruel or cold. He also has a well of courage lying behind his convictions that allows him to make difficult decisions that seem completely in keeping with both the James we met in Lament and the one who develops in Ballad.

As always, Maggie's writing flows off the page beautifully. I thought that having James as protagonist might change the dream like quality of her prose, but it doesn't and it says a lot about her talent that this style works just as well with James as it did with Dee. There is a short chapter towards the end of the book during which James witnesses something deeply unpleasant and it literally gave me goosebumps. Just fantastic. The story seems to end with the hint that there is more to come but from what I have heard this sounds unlikely, which is a great shame as this is a world that I would happily return to again and again.

Finally, I cannot review this without mentioning Sullivan. I may love him. It's true. He is just so masterful and brave and caring and.... I'm going to stop, because I sound ridiculous. That's what he did to me. Thanks, Maggie.


Angiegirl said...

Super review! This book just killed me. I loved James so much and it was so great to see such a strong sequel after enjoying LAMENT that much. I am really looking forward to the next in this series!

Lauren said...

Another excellent review, thanks for this. I really liked Lament, so I'm not sure why I haven't picked this one up yet, but I think it has something to do with the Shiver series taking centre stage on my Stiefvater radar. But this sounds lovely, and I really mustn't let myself miss out on it.

Splendibird said...

Thanks! I really is excellent. I only picked up Lament and Ballad to feed my addiction until Linger came out (which seems to be taking FOREVER) but I am so glad I did. If anything, Ballad is a wee bit better than Lament so definitely pick it up!