Robin: Holly Black’s Modern Faerie Tales series is set in New Jersey and New York in modern America, a great swath of land over which the faeries of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts have been warring for the longest time. Seelie and Unseelie are Scottish terms for faerie divisions (literally, Holy and Unholy). No explanation is offered as to how they were transplanted to America. Not all the faerie are courtiers – there are solitary fey, although they tend to be aligned to one court or the other and may offer their allegiance in exchange for protection.

At the beginning of the series, the faerie courts have been at peace for decades. As part of the truce, the Seelie Queen Silarial sent her finest and most noble knight, Roiben, to serve the Unseelie Queen Nicnevin. In turn the dark knight Nephamael joined the Seelie Court. Nicnevin is described thus: “Her blood-red hair was pulled back into thick, jewelled braids, and the dusky grey of her dress made her skin all the more pale and creamy by comparison. She was inhumanly beautiful, but her smile held no fondness.” Silarial has a similar beauty, but stressed as more natural: “Her skin was flawless, her hair shone bright as copper in the sun under a woven circlet of ivy and dogwood blossoms, her eyes were as bright as the green apples that hung near them.” It is revealed in Ironside that they are sisters.

The Seelie Court is the court of the light folk, gentle in manners and lovers of bright colours, who meet in apple orchards rather than graveyards. It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that they are wholly good, nor that they are friendly to humans, as both courts are inclined to use human beings for their playthings, the difference being mainly that the Unseelie play tends towards torture and inventive slaughter, and not of humans only – the Unseelie feast presents a scene of unbridled cruelty, with other faerie the target. Somewhat gory. However, terrible as the Unseelie Court may be, it is not all cruelty: “Of the Host of the Unseelie Court are many unconcerned by blood and death, save as amusement. But the host is more than a scourge. Nicnevin rules over ancient secrets, buried in the bowels of warrens and fens. The twilight holds as many truths as the dawn, perhaps more, since they are less easily perceived.” The description of the underground chambers of the Unseelie Court, with its caverns of quartz, silent libraries and bone-white orchards, hints at unknown mysteries.

The novels are thick with traditional fairy lore. Most notable is the magic called glamour, which enables the faerie to pass unnoticed among humans, even live among them and join in their amusements. The power of the true name plays a crucial part in Tithe, and comes into play again in Ironside. Also important in the novels is the effect of iron on the faerie folk, so that they can be weakened by travelling in a car, for example. The title of the third novel comes from the faerie name for the human world. The old belief that fairies cannot actually tell an untruth, although in every other way they can be extremely deceitful, forms the basis of an impossible quest in the final book.

The gentle reader should be aware that the author has allowed the desire for authenticity to overcome discretion, and the texts are littered not only with the ugly detritus of human living, but also with their coarser expressions. No glamour conceals the sundry squalors of the human condition, any more than the casual cruelties of the fey.

The books of the series are:
Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale
Valiant: A Modern Tale of Faerie
Ironside: A Modern Faery’s Tale

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