Tor Books, 2016, 315 pages
When Matt Johansson, a young New York actor, auditions for Chapel of Ease, an off-Broadway musical, he is instantly charmed by Ray Parrish, the show's writer and composer. As their friendship deepens, Matt learns that Ray's people call themselves the Tufa and that the musical is based on the history of his isolated hometown. But there is one question in the show's script that Ray refuses to answer: What is buried in the ruins of the Chapel of Ease?
As opening night approaches, strange things begin to happen. A dreadlocked girl follows and spies on Ray. At the press preview, a strange Tufa woman warns him to stop the show. Then, as the rave reviews arrive, Ray dies in his sleep.
Matt and the cast are distraught, but there's no question of shutting down, and the run quickly sells out. Matt volunteers to take Ray's ashes back to Needsville, where he hopes to understand more about the play and uncover the secret that Ray took to his grave.
Matt's journey into the haunting Appalachian mountains of Cloud County sets him on a dangerous path, where some secrets deserve to stay buried.
The first three books in the Tufa series took place almost entirely in Needsville, a tiny Appalachian town where the Tufa settled before the coming of the first men. Not before the coming of the first white men — they were here before the ancestors of the "original" Native Americans arrived. By now, we know what they are: they are the descendants of the Tuatha Dé Danann, exiled since time immemorial over a little spat in the Old Country. Although the Tufa are mostly human at this point, they all have a little faerie in them.
Chapel of Ease starts in Manhattan, and at first it seems like it's a diversion from the Needsville-centered tales of the previous books. The main character is a city boy named Matt Johansson, an actor and dancer who's just scored a part in an off-Broadway production called "The Chapel of Ease." He has no idea what a "chapel of ease" is, but the producer is an up-and-coming talent named Ray Parrish, and as soon as Matt hears the songs for the play, he knows he has to be part of it. All the other actors feel the same way.
We've already learned that Tufa sometimes get wanderlust, but are inevitably drawn back to Needsville. We also know the Tufa have a preternatural talent for music. So it turns out that Ray Parrish is a Tufa, and his play is based on an old Tufa story about star-crossed lovers from the 19th century.
Well, we also know the Tufa don't like their stories being told to outsiders. So when Ray dies before opening night, all signs point the reader towards dark plot twists.
In fact, however, Chapel of Ease is a pretty light tale all the way through. Matt takes Ray's ashes back to Needsville, carrying with him all the baggage of a Manhattanite expecting these rural Southern folks to be a cross between Lil' Abner and Deliverance. He does find them to be a little strange and unlike what he expected, but also, for the most part, friendly. Until he starts poking around looking for the real-life Chapel of Ease that Ray's story was based on. Then he gets dragged into soap operas involving Ray's hunky gay brother, Ray's hot jailbait sister who wants to get out of Needsville and go to Manhattan herself, and the Tufa from the other side who really are into blood feuds and trying to make outsiders squeal like pigs.
For much of the book, the reader is, like Matt, carried along by the mystery of the Chapel of Ease. What did the young woman bury there, before her tragic end? What is the secret? Like Ray, we are looking for the twist, the Big Reveal that will justify the importance of this Macguffin. And like Ray, when we find out what it is, it's really not important to the story at all.
I don't know if Matt is meant to be a continuing character, since he's going back to Manhattan and his romance with CC seems to be a country fling (and he's also learned that non-Tufa who hook up with Tufa tend to meet sad ends). The characters from the previous books make brief appearances, but this volume almost seemed like a filler novel. I am still enjoying the series, as a bit of authentically American fantasy even if it does draw heavily on paranormal romance tropes.
Also by Alex Bledsoe: My reviews of The Hum and the Shiver, Wisp of a Thing, and Long Black Curl.
My complete list of book reviews.