Cruel Sister – Deborah Grabien

Penny Wintercraft-Hawkes’s brother returns unexpectedly to England with a bride Penny has never met, and queries whether her significant other (I do hate that phrase) Ringan Lane would be available to help in the building of the extravagant dream home the couple envisions for the plot of land they own on the Isle of Dogs. They plan a Tudor manor house accurate in every detail to that time period, except for certain details which will be thoroughly modern – the layout and appearance of a 15th century estate, with the windows and mod cons of a 21st century luxury home.

Ringan, of course, is delighted with the idea.

Until he visits the site. The ground feels swampy to him, though no one else notices anything, and then … voices and visions and dreams and unexplained circumstances ensue, and Penny and Ringan are once more over their heads into another ghost story.

This time the point in the past which is trying to ooze out into the present involves a girl, running; dogs, chasing; Henry VIII, being very much Henry VIII … The ballad is, as it says on the tin (I love that phrase), “Cruel Sister”, also known as “The Twa Sisters” or “Binnorie”:

A knight came riding to the ladies’ door
He travelled far to be their wooer
He courted one with gloves and rings
But the other he loved above all things

… (from another version)

And when they came unto the sea-brym,
The elder did push the younger in.

There are reasons Ringan is the one under assault in this story, and they’re slightly life-altering. And we get to meet his mother, which is much more enjoyable on the page than it would be in person.

There is a certain sameness inevitable in the books in this series … Whatever the physical setting, whatever the specifics of the case, the same basic set of circumstances shows up in all of the Haunted Ballads books: either Ringan or Penny or someone close to them has a harrowing experience, then another, lives are endangered, someone realizes the connection to another ballad, and some alchemy is performed with the music to lay the ghost, and all is well. While there is danger, the series seems to have proven that Deborah Grabien isn’t going to let any of these lovely people be killed off by the ghoulies and ghaesties, nor even permanently scarred. (Auxiliary characters, spear-carriers, maybe; the main corps, never.) The danger they’re in is akin to watching a truly horrific horror movie in 3-D – scary as hell, but in the end safe. And I’m fine with that, really; I like them all too much to want to see Penny or Ringan or any of her troupe or his band sacrificed on the altar of realism.

And this criticism is not to say I don’t love these books. They’re very well written – intelligent and humorous at times while at other times the threat is sharp and terrifying, or thick and panic-inducing – and the characters are people I wish I could go have lunch with and watch perform. Their reactions feel genuine – and even they have a tinge of “Not again!” But the danger to the characters feels real, and in each book the mode of attack is different, the nature of the haunting is different, the way the events tie in to the history and the song is different. But even if each ghost story were a carbon copy of the last I would still read it and enjoy it for Ringan and Penny. They and Ringan’s band Broomfield Hill and Ringan’s country squire neighbor are wonderful to spend time with. It’s frustrating that the band is recording a new album here – I want it.

I don’t believe Deborah Grabien has ever said this in the text (or maybe she has – it’s not like it’s less than obvious), but it just struck me why Ringan Lane and Penny can never marry. Penny … Lane?

Relevant links:
The Mudcat
Ballad Index @ CSU
Renaissance Festival Music
The Contemplator

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