James Morgan has accepted a place at the prestigious Thornking-Ash Academy for gifted musicians, mainly because he wanted to be close to his best friend Dee (whose story is told in Lament: The Faerie Queen's Deception), who he has a big crush on. James is cynical, slightly arrogant, and can play the bagpipes so well the teachers at the school are uncertain what they can offer him. He attracts the attention of Nuala, one of the leanan sídhe, a fairy who acts as a muse to artists in return for some of their life-force. Nuala's former beneficiaries all lived brief, but brilliant lives. Unlike the men Nuala formerly inspired, however, James recognizes exactly what she is, and refuses to take the deal she offers him, no matter how tempting Nuala makes it seem.
After a while at the school, it is very obvious to James that something strange is going on, both with the faculty of the school, and beyond the school grounds. Every night he can hear the Horned King sing a mournful song, his friend Dee is getting more and more distant, and his relationship to Nuala changes as more and more faeries who have had contact with humans end up dead.
This is the third book I've read by Maggie Stiefvater, and it's probably my second favourite. Lament still holds the top spot, as a book that made me ache with joy when I read it. James is introduced in that book, but then as a supporting character. It was lovely to get to know him better, and see things from his point of view in this book. He is fiercely intelligent, very talented and deeply loyal to his friends. He worries about Dee, and about the new friends he makes at Thornking-Ash. He hides his deep emotion under a veneer of sarcasm and wit, which is not always appreciated by those around him.
On the basis of her two books about faeries and one about werewolves, I so far prefer her faeries. Her faeries are the dark and sinister kind, that play with the lives of mortals for sport and amusement, who use them for their own ends. To catch the attention of said faeries is not a happy thing. I suspect Ballad could be read independently from Lament, but as the events in this novel follow on from the former, it gives back story and added depth to the characters if one has read Lament first.