Over the past few decades, many urban fantasies with a similar theme came up – some girl discovers that she’s part/all faerie and becomes enmeshed in that world. Success varied.
But of particular note is the trilogy that helped popularize that trope – Holly Black’s “Modern Faerie Tales: Tithe; Valiant; Ironside,” a darkly glittering collection of clever, entrancing urban fantasies that spin up spellbinding stories of the fair folk… and then add a little grime and blood to the mix, without sacrificing any of its beauty.
“Tithe” introduces us to Kaye, a young girl who has spent years traveling with her mother’s rock band… until one night when her mother’s boyfriend/guitarist tries to stab her. With nowhere else to go, Kaye and her mother return to her grandmother’s New Jersey house for the time being, which brings back memories for Kaye of the imaginary faerie friends she had as a child.
… except it turns out that faeries are very, very real, as she finds a wounded faerie knight named Roiben, whose life she saves. Soon Kaye finds herself enmeshed in the secret world of the faeries, and discovers a shocking fact about her own life – she is a changeling, a faerie girl swapped out with a human baby, under a glamour so strong that no one knew what she really is. Unfortunately, finding out who she is comes with a lot more danger.
You might be expecting the second of the Modern Faerie Tales to deal with more of Kaye’s adventures, but instead “Valiant” switches the narrative over to Valerie Russell, who runs away from home when she discovers that her mother is having an affair with Valerie’s boyfriend. She makes her way to New York city, and falls in with a gang of teenage subway-dwellers.
She also finds out about the magical underbelly of the city, since it turns out the kids are friends with a troll named Ravus, who makes a mysterious drug that makes faeries temporarily immune to iron… and allows humans to use magic. Unfortunately, a lot of faerie exiles are being poisoned, and Ravus is suspected of the crime. Only Val can save him by uncovering the true murderer.
“Ironside” returns the action to Kaye and Roiben, as the faerie knight is about to be crowned. But when a drunken Kaye declares her feelings for him, he gives her an impossible task – find a faerie who can tell a lie. Devastated, Kaye tells her mother the truth about what she really is – and then begins a personal quest to find the “real” Kaye Fierch, who was kidnapped as a baby.
Meanwhile, Roiben has become tangled up in Silariel’s schemes, and so Kaye also becomes involved in a forthcoming battle for the throne of the Unseelie Court. In order to be together with the man she loves – even if he seems cruel to her at first – Kaye will need all her wits and strength – but even that might not be enough to stop the Bright Court’s queen.
The Modern Faerie Tales are stories that very much deserve the label “urban fantasy,” primarily because Holly Black’s writing feels like a genuine blend of the fantastical and the gritty. Faerie ethereality and glamour is mingled together with grime, wire and subway tunnels of New York; there’s both a delicate timeless beauty to the stories, and a sort of raw rough punk aesthetic.
The same goes for Black’s writing – it’s dark, it’s wild, and it’s studded with moments of poetry (“red and gold flames licked upward. A sea of burning oil and diesel fuel spread to scorch everything it touched”). And she never turns away from the uglier facets of her world — the faerie courts contain casual brutality against the weak and helpless, and Val ends up addicted to a magical drug.
Her heroines are no less compelling, even if they have little to do with each other. Kaye starts the story feeling a little too edgy, fey and immature, but Black smoothly causes her to grow up as she learns who she truly is, and demonstrates her selflessness and love for her family and Roiben. Val is more of an awkward tomboy than a rock’n’roll girl – a wounded girl losing her way and herself, as she struggles to find a place to belong. And there’s a variety of likable supporting characters, like a hunky troll, the icy knight Roiben, and the nerdy gay friend Corny.
Amongst the stories about “I’m a faerie and never knew it,” Holly Black’s “Modern Faerie Tales: Tithe; Valiant; Ironside” stands out as one of the best – darkly glittering, dramatic and perfectly blending the urban and the ethereal.