There’s something a little awkward about reading book three in an established series without having any idea of what one is getting into, like crashing a party by accident. Alex Bledsoe’s Long Black Curl is the third in a sequence of novels about the Tufa, savage fairy magic and traditional folk music in the Appalachians, and its enthusiastic supporters include a band (and here I quote from the press release) ‘that has crafted an entire album of music based on the stories and characters’. That’s a warning of extreme fandom: terrific for the author and his sales, unnerving for the reader who just wants a good story without having to get dressed up in a swooshy Victorian skirt and bodice with de rigueur tattoos and antique melodeon for the music video. Institutionalised fan adoration takes away our own ideas of what the characters could look like.
Bledsoe has written many more novels than this series about the Tufa in Tennessee, and he crafts a cracking good read. I last came across a modern novel using the idea of fairies / Good Folk inhabiting our world in a particularly badass, time-travelling way in Gillian Philip’s Rebel Angels series. Her series married a fine and anthropologically sound idea with excellent story-telling, pitched initially at a YA readership but later transcending those commercial boundaries. Bledsoe’s assumed readership is a little older, but also beginning in the YA zone. One of the protagonists of Long Black Curl is a twelve-year old girl called Mandalay, who is also the embodied presence of hundreds of generations of First Daughters holding their tribe of exiled Tuatha De Danaan together in the alien and unforgiving landscape of the Appalachian Mountains. Her understanding of life, sex, rules and wrongdoing is a little more advanced than that of other twelve-year olds might be, but when you’re living in a big, divided tribe where magic is a fact of life, your normal is what you have to deal with. Mandalay doesn’t have time for other people’s opinions of her, because she has to lead her half of the tribe, protected by her father and step-mother, and by Bliss Overbay, paramedic and firewoman.
Mandalay has to be protected because Bo-Kate Wisby has come back to Needsville to take revenge, take over the town and bring the two feuding halves of the Tufa together. She and her lover Jefferson Powell were exiled – exceptionally – for hideous crimes of murder and violence, and neither were supposed to be able to come back. Bo-Kate has found a way, and so the Tufa decide they have to let Jeff back too, to try to stop her killings. Its winter, it’s cold and wet and miserable outside, and the characters perpetually travel about in giant American off-road trucks and cars that are probably quite normal in mountain country. The effect is not of fairy steeds, but of alienness, and bigness, roaring engines with power over time and space. There’s an unsubtle suggestion of big violence with the power of these trucks and SUVs as well, which is what Bo-Kate Wisby specialises in. And, of course, of big wrongs being righted at last, a force of nature barrelling right to the heart of her tribe’s problems. The novel begins with some horrible mutilation (by Bo-Kate) and the death of a very old man who has terrorised his people for centuries.
Bledsoe is extremely good at writing in unobtrusive back story. Just when I needed to know something crucial from the earlier novels, The Hum and the Shiver (2011) and Wisp of a Thing (2013), there they were in the plot, seamlessly integrated as part of the narrative. When I needed to have a sense of how important someone was, Bo-Kate would kill her husband or burn down her house. The slaughter is heartbreaking because it’s selective and deliberate. Pretty soon we realise that nobody is safe. Characters we come to like are disposed of because they’re in Bo-Kate’s way, but not everyone is defenceless. There is a strong undercurrent of mercy, forgiveness and joining together in this novel that is a highly necessary antithesis to Bo-Kate’s blinkered savagery. There are also some beautifully written characters: Nigel, Bo-Kate’s English assistant from her Nashville music manager life, whose calmness and steady purpose as probably the only black man in Cloud County, Tennessee, indicates his strength of personality. Tain, Bo-Kate’s cousin, flies naked at night, riding the night wind effortlessly, and has ecstatic sex with her many lovers when she feels like it, which is often. Byron Harley thought he’d just been sitting playing guitar with an old hillbilly by the fire for an hour or two, after surviving a plane crash, but it turns out it’s been 50 years. His story, which opens the novel, underlines the chilly non-humanness of the Tufa when they’re dealing with real people. It’s also an example of the thing that I think Bledsoe is playing around with just a little too cleverly.
Harley’s plane crash on 3 February 1958 killed two musicians, including a spectacled gawky kid from Texas. Bledsoe is clearly reusing the famous plane crash of 3 February 1959 in Iowa, in which Buddy Holly (gawky, spectacles, Texan), Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper (coulda been Byron Harley) died. So from the beginning the music references in Long Black Curl shift between the real world (comparative references to Elvis, the Kardashians and Amy Winehouse), and an invented parallel music world in which Jeff and Bo-Kate are hugely successful managers of music stars. They had their music taken away when they were exiled – no more singing or playing for them, things that the Tufa do as naturally as speaking – but their natural affiliation makes them geniuses at spotting the real thing. This shifting of focus between the real and invented feels awkward, and is at its worst in the last chapter, after an episode of terrific emotional power and plot importance when catharsis is badly needed by characters and reader. It’s nighttime, we’re standing outside the roadhouse, something astonishingly impossible and deadly has just happened, and – we get catharsis through exasperated bathos rather than searing purity. A tour bus arrives because the band is lost, they can’t get out of Cloud County (that Tufa practice of detaining the people they need for their own purposes) and they need a gig like the Tufa need a band, right here, right now. It’s Alex Bledsoe’s tribute band Tuatha Dea, written into the novel, and I nearly threw the book across the room. Maybe it was a bet or a good-natured act of friendship, but a strongminded editor should have told him to keep self-indulgence out of his story for its own good. The tone wobbles, the mood is lost: it’s a stupid detail in the ending of an otherwise excellent novel.
Alex Bledsoe, Long Black Curl (Tor Books, 2015), 978-1-4668-5141-2, $24.99