Deborah Grabien, New Slain Knight
I don't usually start off a review by being pissed at the publisher, but this time is different. This publisher allowed a wonderful series to lapse with just one novel to go! GRRRR! So I'm going to rag on them somewhat royally for not publicising The Haunted Ballads series better, and not offering either mass market or trade paper editions which would have built interest in the series as new novels were added, instead of undermining the entire endeavor by making the introductory book so difficult for readers to find. Had the books been properly promoted, I suspect they'd have done much better than they did. I mean, hell, stellar reviews -- Matty Groves was a starred review in Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal picked The Weaver and the Factory Maid as one of the three best mysteries of 2003 and gave Cruel Sister a starred review. But the series was slotted for midlist from the beginning, and the author told me in an interview that she got no help publicising it. I want to read the final novel and see how Grabien gracefully wraps up what I consider one of the finest mystery series ever written.
More's the pity, as New Slain Knight is the best in the series, and quite possibly one of the finest ghost stories ever told. And I assume, based on what Grabien has told me, that the final act would have been even better. As I said in my review of the first four novels, this is a series where:
ghosts are very real and many, many folk can experience their presence with that awareness being anything from being very, very cold on a hot midsummer's day for no reason at all to seeing visions of the ghosts in their own time complete with smell, sound, and even touch being quite real. All of the myriad manifestations are geographically specific -- one of the strong points of this series is that the locales, real or imagined, all are detailed enough to have a feel of reality as our author has a fine sense of place!
New Slain Knight is set in Cornwall, same setting as Charles de Lint's The Little Country, a place haunted by a long and misty past of history and myth where time itself often comes unbound. Often tragically.
Imagine not one but two hauntings happening at once. And now imagine someone is not simply able to see visions of the past so vividly that she, Penny, can watch and feel the hauntings as if she was there, but is also able to amplify those hauntings so others are caught up in them. Others who have no way of coping with what she's experiencing.
All this happens because a three week vacation planned by Penny and her lover, musician Ringan, is disturbed when Ringan's sister calls to ask him to watch her daughter for two weeks. Penny does not mind that Rebecca is going to be with them; indeed, she suggests they go to Cornwall as a way of getting away from everything. Ringan arranges for them to stay with his friend and fellow musician, Gowan Cambourne, who makes Penny feel extremely uncomfortable. She and Becca share the same horrific vision when 'New Slain Knight' is played, but the vision appears to have nothing at all to do with the words of that song.
Gowan confesses that his lover committed suicide in the house and that Rebecca resembles her rather strongly. Our young fiddler performs the song with Gowan's band and has a vision of his ancestors who lived five centuries ago, involving a sordid tale of rape and murder. Before something fatal happens to one of them, a very worried Ringan takes the two women to Tintagell, but the visions continue. (In previous novels, the visions were linked to being in a specific location.) Will discovering the truth about what happened long ago still the visions? Or is something else at play here? With Penny having migraines and Becca having seizures that leave her unconscious, the past is threatening to add more victims to the existing toll.
It is important to stress Grabien is a writer with a keen interest in music, which figures nicely into her writing, as music is intrinsic to all her novels. Besides The Haunted Ballads, she is also the author of The Kinkaid Chronicles, a mystery series based on Rock and Roll instead of the traditional music in this series. The first novel, Rock & Roll Never Forgets, will be released next year on Thomas Dunne Books.
To say more about New Slain Knight and how it turns out would be to spoil your fun in reading this novel. But you can't read it until you read the first four books in order, as Grabien has really written a single superb novel spread over what would have been six chapters. Each chapter, or novel, is perfectly written, builds perfectly off what has been written before -- a rarity in any series, let alone most mystery series. If The Kinkaid Chronicles is anywhere near as good as The Haunted Ballads has been, we are all in for a great reading experience. Hell, I'll bet rock musicians will love the new series as much as traditional musicians loved The Haunted Ballads!