Ballad by Maggie Stiefvater.
Ballad returns us to the characters Stiefvater introduced us to in Lament. It feels more like a linked novel than a continuation of the series, though. Things have been extremely awkward between James and Dierdre because of the events of the last book, so she and James aren’t really talking. We get her point of view in ghostly texts that she types to him but never sends. They are both now attending Thornking Ash, the high school for extremely musically gifted high school students that they were invited to after doing so well at the music competition that opened the first book. James, both hurt by her lack of contact and understanding that she’s going through a hard time, scrambles alone to fit in at the new school. He runs into a roadblock right away: there are no advanced bagpipe teachers at the school. On his way back from a failed lesson, he meets Nuala, a sidhe who must feed off of the inspiration of artists and musicians to survive. While she tells him the partial truth that accepting her help will give him a boost that will bring immortal fame, he’s savvy enough with the realm of fairy to know that the catch – whatever it might be – isn’t something he’s willing to risk. Nevertheless, they find themselves attracted to each other, in a romance that’s especially bittersweet knowing that Nuala is essentially starving herself to stay with James. As if that weren’t enough to deal with, James realizes that Thornking Ash lies in the path taken by Cernunnos, the Horned King, and that he isn’t the only student drawn by the haunting songs. The Fairy Queen is also up to new mischief, and while James may not know what’s going on with Dierdre, we as readers know from her increasingly desperate if cryptic texts that something is going badly wrong. James will need the slightly unexpected help of his English teacher, Mr. Sullivan, as well as his very ordinary seeming roommate to solve the mysteries before it’s too late for both Nuala and Dierdre.
It’s boarding school fantasy! (see also Harry Potter, Hex Hall, Beswitched, White Cat, and Gunnerkrigg Court) And while I enjoyed Lament greatly, I have to say that even though this book has more bagpipes than harps (not that I have anything against bagpipes, really!), there’s an added depth to this book. Both Nuala and James have more developed, nuanced characters than Dierdre and Luke. Music, magic and school integrate perfectly in a book that just confirms Stiefvater’s position as one of my favorite current authors.
And a note: once, in the author interview after an audiobook, Maggie Stiefvater said that she could never again tell people in Germany that she plays the bagpipes, because the German word for bagpipe is “Dudelsack”. I myself have always thought that “Dudelsack” was a fun word, but also that this linguistic disparity is evened out by the poor hurdy-gurdy being elevated to the much more dignified-sounding “Drehorgel” or “turn organ” in German. But maybe that’s easy for me to say as I don’t play either instrument.