Intriguing follow-up to Lament
After reading Maggie Stiefvater's first novel, Lament: The Faerie Queen's Deception, a few months ago and loving it (as my previous review on it can attest), I waited impatiently for Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie to come out. I dove into it this past weekend, and though I enjoyed it a great deal, it didn't bind me like Lament did.
Ballad picks up a few months after Dee and James barely survive their first harrowing experiences with the world of Faerie. Dee has left home to attend the prestigious music boarding school, Thornking-Ash, and best friend James, who's in love with her, follows. Ballad tells its story through the alternating points of view of James and a dangerous faerie muse called Nuala, who has chosen James as her next conquest. As the best bagpiper in all of Virginia, James finds himself with little to gain at the new school, other than the opportunity to be near Dee, who has entered onto a path of self-destruction.
Ballad is a portrait of James coming to terms with his unique talents, his unrequited love and concern for Dee, his perceived isolation from others, and his growing temptations towards Nuala on multiple fronts. James is a well-drawn character, with quirks, snark, and witticisms that fully embody him. As the book progresses, you become more and more concerned for him and what compromises he may make, even at the risk of his life or soul, to stand out and feel worthy. His narrative counterpart, Nuala, also comes into focus as the story develops, and even though she starts out as a nemesis, the reader learns her weaknesses and becomes sympathetic towards her too. This book differs from Lament's fast pace and immediate draw; instead, the development of James and Nuala as characters, as well as James' mentor and friends, grows at a steady but sure pace.
Like Stiefvater's other novels, this book is very well-written, with smart characters and quick dialogue. The book differs from Lament, though, as it's more of a character study interspersed with events that show us the depths of struggle that James experiences. It's also darker in its descriptions of faeries and the thoughts of the main characters. Though I love sarcasm and wit, James' continual barrage of comments can make one weary at times and I found it unbelievable that any teachers (even the intriguing Mr. Sullivan) would put up with it for very long. There are some weaknesses to the plot, in that the climax doesn't seem too climactic and some of the characters don't show the strong emotional reactions one would expect given what they've experiencing. There are also some plot points that weren't terribly clear, but they didn't detract too much from the reading overall; I hope these will be cleared up or expanded in the books to come in this series.
Overall, a good read but with room for more in what I hope will be multiple coming novels set in this universe. Though this can be read as a standalone novel, I would recommend reading Lament: The Faerie Queen's Deception first to get the backstory on James and Dee, their relationship, and what happened during the past summer. Knowing their history will provide more understanding and empathy with their characters.