Book Review: Ironside (Modern Faerie Tales, #3) by Holly Black

Title: Ironside
Author: Holly Black
Publisher: McElderry Books
Publication date: 2007
Length: 323 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

In the realm of Faerie, the time has come for Roiben’s coronation. Uneasy in the midst of the malevolent Unseelie Court, pixie Kaye is sure of only one thing — her love for Roiben. But when Kaye, drunk on faerie wine, declares herself to Roiben, he sends her on a seemingly impossible quest. Now Kaye can’t see or speak to Roiben unless she can find the one thing she knows doesn’t exist: a faerie who can tell a lie.

Miserable and convinced she belongs nowhere, Kaye decides to tell her mother the truth — that she is a changeling left in place of the human daughter stolen long ago. Her mother’s shock and horror sends Kaye back to the world of Faerie to find her human counterpart and return her to Ironside. But once back in the faerie courts, Kaye finds herself a pawn in the games of Silarial, queen of the Seelie Court. Silarial wants Roiben’s throne, and she will use Kaye, and any means necessary, to get it. In this game of wits and weapons, can a pixie outplay a queen?

Holly Black spins a seductive tale at once achingly real and chillingly enchanted, set in a dangerous world where pleasure mingles with pain and nothing is exactly as it appears. 

I’m going to keep this post short, because I just don’t find myself having all that much to say about Ironside. But hey, I posted reviews for the first two books in the trilogy (Tithe and Valiant), so I might as well be complete about it!

In Ironside, we go back to the main character from Tithe — Kaye, the pixie raised as a human, who has fallen in love with Lord Roiben, the ruler of the Unseelie Court. He sets her on what seems to be an impossible quest, and meanwhile, is on the brink of war with the Seelie court, which his outnumbered people seem destined to lose.

Alongside her best friend, the mortal Corny, and their new friend Luis (who was introduced in Valiant), Kaye has to try to solve the riddle of her quest and find a way to prevent the war that’s likely to end with Roiben’s death, while also keeping Corny from the endless disasters that seem to pop up wherever he goes.

As in the other books in the trilogy, Ironside is set in New York, where faeries need magical powders of protection to live amidst all the poisonous iron of the human world. This book is not as bleak and grim as the 2nd book. There’s still danger, but the focus is mostly on events involving the faerie courts, and it doesn’t have quite the same sense of urban grittiness.

I’m not mad that I finished the trilogy, but I didn’t love the overarching story as a whole. Some characters are endearing, but the plot didn’t grab me, and key moments felt kind of brief and lacking in substance.

My edition of the trilogy (a three-in-one volume) includes The Lament of Lutie-Loo, a short story (written in 2019) about Kaye’s sprite companion and the visit she makes to Elfhame. I liked this a lot — it’s light and fun, and I think I particularly liked it for the glimpses of beloved characters from the Folk of the Air trilogy.

I’d been curious about these books, and they were on my list of series I wanted to read this year, so I’m glad to have accomplished what I set out to do. This trilogy as a whole didn’t thrill me, but I do love Holly Black’s writing and imagination, and look forward to reading a few more of her books.

Book Review: Valiant (Modern Faerie Tales, #2) by Holly Black

Title: Valiant
Author: Holly Black
Publisher: McElderry Books
Publication date: 2002
Length: 256 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Return to New York Times bestselling author Holly Black’s enthralling realm of faerie in the second Modern Faerie Tales novel, where danger and magic come hand-in-hand in the dark underground of New York City.

When seventeen-year-old Valerie runs away to New York, she’s trying to escape a life that has utterly betrayed her. Sporting a new identity, she takes up with a gang of squatters who live in the city’s labyrinthine subway system. But there’s something eerily beguiling about Val’s new friends that sets her on edge.

When Val is talked into tracking down the lair of a mysterious creature, she must strike a bargain to make it out with her life intact. Now drawn into a world she never knew existed, Val finds herself torn between her affection for an honorable monster and her fear of what her new friends are becoming.

While Valiant is the 2nd book in Holly Black’s Modern Faerie Tales trilogy, don’t pick it up expecting to continue where Tithe left off. In Valiant, we meet a completely new cast of characters in a mostly new setting, and it’s only toward the end that there’s some cross-over with the previous book’s characters.

Val is 17 years old when she discovers a major betrayal by the people she trusted the most. Distraught, she takes a train into Manhattan to get away for a few hours — but then can’t bring herself to go back home. She shaves her head and takes to the street, fortunately meeting up with a few other teen runaways who welcome her into their circle. She soon finds herself squatting with them at an abandoned subway platform, where they can be relatively safe, keep warm, and have a regular place to sleep.

Val’s new friends — Lolli, Dave, Luis — have secrets. It turns out that they do odd jobs for the faerie underground in the city, making deliveries of a special potion that helps the Fae stay healthy in a world full of poisonous iron. What Val’s friends have discovered is that when a human uses this potion, especially by injecting it, it gives them all sorts of delicious borrowed power. It’s also highly addictive, and none of them seem able to resist it for long.

Meanwhile, someone is murdering solitary fae, and suspicion falls on Ravus, the bridge toll who creates and distributes the magical potion. Val has grown closer to Ravus, but being in his circle becomes more and more dangerous. There’s adventure and chaos, friendship and betrayal, growing up and going home. There’s a LOT going on this book.

Val & Ravus fan art via https://hollyblack.tumblr.com/

In some ways, Valiant could be seen as a metaphor for the dangers of being a runaway. Remember how people used to talk a lot about how Buffy is really a metaphor for the teen years (high school is hell!)? You could look at Valiant in a similar fashion. There’s a point to be made here: The experiences of Val and her friends are dark and grim and in no way glamorous or magical. The book shows their daily struggle to get enough to eat, find a bathroom to clean up in, sleep where they won’t be robbed or assaulted, and figure out who to trust. Several characters fall quickly into addiction, and the fact that it’s a magical drug doesn’t change the fact that it’s destroying them more and more each day. Through the constant threats and uncertainties, this book makes clear that running away shouldn’t be seen as the answer. Home may be hard, but being on the streets isn’t the “magical” solution either.

At the same time, this is a faerie tale, although a very dark one. It’s bleak and hard, the fae the characters meet are mostly cruel, and the stakes are high — if they survive their lives on the streets, they can still be killed by creatures that want to hurt them just for fun.

This isn’t a pleasant read, but it did keep me interested. I liked Val and Ravus as characters, and I’m interested in seeing how the 3rd book, Ironside, wraps up the plots of Tithe and Valiant. As I mentioned in my review of Tithe, I don’t feel these books are anywhere near the greatness of the Folk of the Air trilogy — but considering that the Modern Faerie Tales books were written about 20 years earlier, it’s nice to be able to compare and see the author’s development of her craft and the worlds she creates.

Onward to #3!

Book Review: Tithe (Modern Faerie Tales, #1) by Holly Black

Title: Tithe
Author: Holly Black
Publisher: McElderry Books
Publication date: 2002
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Welcome to the realm of very scary faeries!

Sixteen-year-old Kaye is a modern nomad. Fierce and independent, she travels from city to city with her mother’s rock band until an ominous attack forces Kaye back to her childhood home. There, amid the industrial, blue-collar New Jersey backdrop, Kaye soon finds herself an unwilling pawn in an ancient power struggle between two rival faerie kingdoms – a struggle that could very well mean her death. 

I have been wanting to read the Modern Faerie Tale trilogy ever since reading the author’s more recent Folk of the Air series, which I love to pieces. Tithe, the first book in the trilogy, was first published in 2002, and is Holly Black’s first novel.

Kaye is a 16-year-old girl who lives wherever her mother happens to land, raising herself while her mother focuses on her band. She stopped going to school a couple of years earlier, rather than continuing to go through the process of starting over every time they pick up move somewhere new for the sake of a new gig.

When they need a sudden escape from a dangerous situation, they move back to Kaye’s hometown in New Jersey to live in her grandmother’s house. Kaye is happy to reconnect with her elementary school bestie, Janet, and also hopes to see her imaginary friends again. But are they really imaginary? In her early years, Kaye would tell anyone who would listen about her magical fairy friends, which no one ever believed, earning herself the reputation of being a weird kid.

Some strange things start to recur, and after a bad night out, Kaye runs into a beautiful, otherworldly man in the forest who’s been injured. As she tries to help him, a bond is forged, and she starts to learn more about her own true nature. It turns out that Kaye is a pixie changeling, placed under heavy glamours to appear human and exchanged for the real baby Kaye, who’s been raised in Faerie in Kaye’s place.

Things escalate quickly, and Kaye finds herself pulled into a power struggle between the different Fae courts. She’d like to trust Roiben, but he’s clearly dangerous as well, and Kaye is still learning about her own magic and abilities, as well as worrying about her mortal friends who have inadvertently gotten mixed up with the world of Faerie.

Kaye is a great character, a little jaded and world-weary, but also in awe of the new world that opens before her. She hates the power games and brutality shown by some of the Fae, but she sees beauty in this world as well. The dynamic between Kaye and Roiben is quite fun. (Side note: Kaye and Roiben make brief appearances in the Folk of the Air trilogy, and once I realized that they were the main characters in Tithe, I knew I needed to read it.)

There are some tragic turns and dramatic encounters, and the pacing of the story is quick and engaging. That said, this book was written almost 20 years ago and is a first novel, and both of those elements show. I can’t fault a book for depicting the time in which it was written, but it’s still jarring, here in 2021, to have teens not glued to their cell phones, see them using pay phones, or mention the noise their modem makes while connecting to the internet.

In terms of this being a first novel, it’s well-written and engaging, but having read the Folk of the Air trilogy, Tithe suffers by comparison. Which may just be a round-about way of saying how amazing the Folk of the Air books are — sophisticated plotting and world-building, powerfully depicted characters, intricate relationships… I could go on and on. Reading Tithe after those books, it’s clear that Tithe is much simpler writing, and at the same time, doesn’t do as good a job of explaining the various power dynamics of the Fae courts (which we basically get to know about via one massive information dump).

Holly Black is an incredibly gifted writer, and it’s interesting to see where she started. The world of Tithe is related to the world of the Folk of the Air, and reading Tithe is a great chance to experience Faerie as the author first depicted it.

I will definitely read the other two books in the series (Valiant and Ironside), and then have an unrelated trilogy (Curse Workers) and an unrelated novel (The Coldest Girl in Coldtown) by Holly Black on my TBR shelf.

I do recommend Tithe, especially for fans of the author’s later books.

For more of my reviews of Holly Black books:
The Darkest Part of the Forest
The Good Neighbors (graphic novel trilogy)
The Cruel Prince
The Wicked King/The Queen of Nothing
How the King of Elfhame Learned To Hate Stories