"Sometimes the best mysteries are never solved, because the mystery is too important to lose. This is the story about one of those mysteries. Most of it's true, and the parts that ain't, well, they still sound true."
It's time to return to Needsville, TN, the home of the Tufa for the latest installment in one of the best ongoing Fantasy around. One of the best things about this series is how every book is completely different from its predecessors, but they all clearly belong to the same series.
After a quick tease, we enter the story in New York City where an up-and-coming musical writer/composer and a well-established director are casting for an off-Broadway musical (the opening line of which was quoted above). There's something about the story and songs penned by Ray Parrish that draws everyone who reads and/or hears them in as surely as moths to a flame. One such person was Matt Johanssen, who becomes friends with Ray as well as one of the more dedicated cast members.
The twist in this tale comes from the source of Ray's material -- old (and not-so-old) Tufa stories and music. As anyone who knows these people realizes, people back home are not going to look kindly on this. There are a couple of people on the fringes of Ray's world that make it clear that the Tufa want something out of Ray -- ideally, a cessation of any musical or play or anything ending up in public. Ray will not be dissuaded, this is the story he wants to tell -- whether people in Needsville want him to or not.
Just before the much-talked about play opens, Ray dies in his sleep and it falls upon Matt to bring his ashes home to his family. While there, he has the opportunity to look into the places and people this play is based on -- and maybe get an idea what the central mystery of the play is about. Ray'd played his cards close to the chest on this topic and without him around to tell the cast, someone has to do some first-hand research. So, while mourning his friend and getting to know his family, Matt finds himself on the verge of instigating a feud while doing his research.
Now, it's not unusual for a Tufa novel to feature an outsider's first encounter with the Tufa. But this time, the book is just about that -- there's so little action outside of this story that it really doesn't merit attention (at least not now). In these pages we have a first person narrator as the person encountering the culture. This gives everything an immediacy, an intimacy that we don't normally get to these. Also, the narrow concentration keeps the reader focused on what's going on with the Parrishes and Matt, without worrying about the Tufa politics, shifting power, and so on (it's there, and there are changes in town, but that's not what the novel is about).
In many ways, it's not a novel about the Tufa -- it just happens that they're around, it's a novel about Matt and Ray. But once you throw the Tufa in, you end up with something that's not your typical story about a dancer/actor from NYC returning his friends' ashes to the Appalachian town he grew up in.
I thought Matt was great -- as was his dawning realization that he wasn't in the world he knew anymore, and how he reacted to that realization. The way he stepped into parts of the culture he was exposed to was well handled, second only to the way he went about fighting against or struggling with the rest.
You do get to see your favorite recurring characters and they make references to events in the other novels, so readers of the series do get to check in on things other than the Parrishes -- please don't misunderstand. The novel's focus isn't on that, however.
If you even glance at the cover blurb, you know that someone has to die so that there's an urn for Matt to bring to Cloud County, but Ray's inevitable death was a doozy -- and the memorial service held for him was one of the more moving things I've read this year (the impromptu memorial in New York held by friends/cast, that is -- the wake the Tufa held was a different kind of experience). Making you care about a guy you know is going to die before you open the book and meet him that much takes a special kind of writer -- and that's what Alex Bledsoe is. Naturally, that doesn't just apply to Ray; it works for Matt, the Parrishes, C. C. and several others who actually survive the book (and one that doesn't).
I feel like I'm in danger of becoming the Chris Farley talk show host character here, "Remember that part in the book where Matt does ____? That was cool." I really don't know what to say about this book -- or the others in the series -- that I haven't before. It's a great setting, with a culture and people you want to see again and again, for both understanding and entertainment. Plus the overwhelming desire to actually hear the music they keep talking about. This is Bledsoe at the top of his game, you should be sure not to miss it.
And, like the play itself -- it all sounds true.