Monday, June 23, 2008

How Modern These Faeries Be

Ironside, by Holly Black, is subtitled "A Modern Faery's Tale," like the two volumes that precede it (Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale and Valiant: A Modern Tale of Faerie). The modernization is interesting and amusing; it only occasionally fails to be true to the tradition of fairy stories.

Ironside is well plotted and a fast read. Although I can imagine someone enjoying it without reading the first two, a big part of its pleasure is how well it weaves threads from the previous stories. In Tithe, Holly Black introduces her characters and brings their first adventure to a full and satisfying close. In Valiant, she introduces different characters and tells what seems to be a separate story, but it is not as compelling and doesn't come to a satisfactory end. The third book demonstrates that these stories are meant to work as a trilogy.

The faeries are as heartless and beautiful and compelling as traditional fairies should be, with an additional layer of appealing-to-teenagers coolness, a la Jane Yolen's updated fairy tales (Pay the Piper is the latest one I've read). They're clever, too, although this is the main area in which the updating falls short. It's amusing when Corny the mortal boy says, in Tithe, "I woke up outside the hill this morning. I figured that you'd ditched me and I was going to do a Rip Van Winkle and find out that it was the year 2112 and no one had even heard of me," but why didn't it happen? How can he also eat the fairy food and be able to return to the moral world with no problems (other than an isolated vomiting episode in Ironside). Black attempts to explain a little of how her modern magic works in Valiant, with the plotline about "never," an addictive-to-humans faery glamour tonic, but it all seems a little easier than usual for the mortals to overcome the magic of the fairy realm.

There's a lovely bit of traditional fairy trickery in Tithe, when Roiben is ordered to seize Kaye and "he grabbed her hair in a clump, jerking her head back, then just as suddenly let her go" because he hasn't been ordered to hold on, but this isn't developed any further in Ironside. In fact, the final play on words is so funny and infuriating that it made me scream with laughter and kick the book across the floor in annoyance. Luckily, that bit of trickery is not integral to the plot; it's just a revelation after the action has already taken place.

What is clever about the ending of Ironside is the way the heroine saves herself. She needs the hero's help and he needs hers, but the actual saving of her own skin is up to her. There's no cheap ending where anything is resolved by magic. There's no easy happily ever after. The ending isn't as tidy as it could have been. Early on, my daughter and I were both amused by this dialogue:
"You can't date the Lord of the Night Court."
"Well, I'm not. He dumped me."
"You can't get dumped by the Lord of the Night Court."
"Oh yes you can. You so completely can."
And despite various annoying (to me, anyway) descriptions of this Lord's black leather outfits for going out into the mortal world, the ending of the book is letter-perfect in its blend of traditional and modern:
Kaye groaned. "You really are a terrible boyfriend, you know that?"
He nodded. "A surfeit of ballads makes for odd ideas about romance."
"But things don't work like that," Kaye said, taking the bottle from his hand and drinking from the neck. "Like ballads or songs or epic poems where people do all the wrong things for the right reasons."
"You have completed an impossible quest and saved me from the Queen of the Faeries," he said softly. "That is very like a ballad."

An additional pleasure of reading these books is the epigraph for each chapter, drawn eclectically from the writings of people like Pablo Neruda, Andrew Wyeth, Oscar Wilde, Christina Rossetti, and Czeslaw Milosz. Some of them might even interest young readers in casting their net wider, as Cornelia Funke's epigraphs drawn from the writing of Michael de Larrabeiti for her chapters in Inkheart caused my family to seek out and enjoy The Borrible trilogy.

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