starlady: meralonne and kallandras in the wood (in a dark wood)
[personal profile] starlady
Black, Holly. Tithe. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2002.
--------------. Valiant. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2005.
--------------. Ironside. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2007.

I borrowed these books from [personal profile] shveta_writes in preparation for Sirens 2010, where Holly Black is one of the guests of honor, and I liked them a lot--I was actually sort of surprised by that, because I have never particularly had any affinity for fairy stories, particularly in contemporary fantasy and YA. But these books have enough convincing detail, and vivid characters, and also they're set in north Jersey and New York, that I was taken under their spell.

The obvious comparand for these books is Emma Bull's War for the Oaks, and at one point Bull is actually name-checked in the text, just to make the point clear. In comparison with that book, though, Black's protagonists are younger, more desperate, poorer and ultimately far less couth--I always say that New Jersey people are tougher than New Yorkers, but in these books both populations give each other a run for their money. I also liked that Black almost immediately complicates the standard "Unseelie Court = bad, Seelie Court = good" model, and if Bull's faerie courts seemed to have at least a whiff of racial hierarchy, in Black faerieland is all about the class divide--the only middle class character(s), Val of Valiant and her best friend Ruth, almost immediately flee the suburbs of north Jersey to live in the subways and on the streets of New York, which is not exactly what their guidance counselors and parents want or expect. Everyone else is decidedly working class, right out of the trailer parks and blue-collar neighborhoods of Asbury Park and environs, and when they tangle with the gentry of Faerie, particularly Nicnevin the Unseelie Queen and her sister the Seelie Queen Silarial, as well as Nicnevin's knights Nephamael and Roiben, the class issues are not covert.

The books mostly center around Kaye Fierch, a young misfit who moves with her mother from Philly back to north Jersey after her mother's latest boyfriend turns murderous suspiciously quickly in the wake of a particularly bad gig. Kaye inadvertently runs into, rescues and obtains the true name of faerie knight Roiben in the woods out back behind her best friend Janet's trailer, and when she learns she's actually a changeling, a pixie switched for a human child soon after birth, her involvement with the Unseelie Court and with Roiben quickly becomes too deep to turn back from, even if she could, and it sucks Janet and her brother Cornelius, aka Corny, gay geek, down along with her, into a plot that's been brewing nearly her entire life.

Valiant shifts the focus to the human high schooler Val, who finds out that her boyfriend is cheating on her and just doesn't come home from New York City; instead she hooks up with a couple of street kids who act as couriers for the exiled fey in New York City. But when fey who've received deliveries start turning up dead, and Val starts learning the sword from the same troll who makes the potion that enables the fey to survive Ironside, the intrigues of the Courts once again ensnare supposedly unconnected humans, with consequences.

Ironside unifies the survivors from both narratives and propels Kaye, Roiben, and Luis into a confrontation with the master manipulator herself, the Unseelie Queen, and sees Corny getting a little of his own back and learning to negotiate his status as a human in a world filled with faeries he can't unsee or ignore. To say more would be spoilers, I think.

So, yeah. I really liked these books; I loved the characters, particularly Corny and Kaye (Corny gets what has to be the nerdiest coming-out scene in literature, even if it is told in reported discourse), but everyone feels incredibly real, and when characters suffer the reader is not indifferent. I liked that Black is insistent in her acknowledgment of pain, not as anything more than that but unequivocally as something that people have to learn to bear, or fail at trying. She exposes too the ways in which pleasure and pain can run side by side or even overlap each other; her writing is dark and rich, shot through with dazzling flashes, as befits her subject matter. I also like that balance she strikes in playing the reader versus the characters knowing but not knowing how they are being played, and how people figure out the intrigues, or don't. I've bought Black's short story collection, and look forward very much to reading it.
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