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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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Tithe by Holly BlackRobin: Tithe, the first of the Modern Faerie Tales series, is about a pixie who was changed for a girl-child and has grown up under a heavy glamour, believing herself to be human. Her human name is Kaye. When very young, she had faerie friends – thought by her mother and classmates to be imaginary: the hobs Gristle and Spike, the tiny winged Lutie-loo and the mysterious Thistlewitch. She moved from New Jersey to Philadelphia when she was ten, and they were half-forgotten. Now, at sixteen, she returns to her grandmother’s house, wondering if she will still find the old magic.

The first of the faerie Kaye meets is the wounded white-haired faerie knight Roiben. She wins his regard, though their friendship is not an easy one. The Thistlewitch warns her he is dangerous while also revealing the secret of her changeling origins. “It is rarely that we leave one of our own behind, but when we do, the child’s fey nature becomes harder and harder to conceal as it grows. In the end, they all return to Faery.” Kaye finds this an alarming idea, as she is attached to her human life. But she is fascinated too by the revelation of her pixie self: green-skinned, winged, with heightened senses and the ability to cast a glamour.

The “tithe” of the title is a blood sacrifice which is intended to bind the solitary fey to the Unseelie Court for the next seven years, affecting the balance of power. However, the Seelie Queen has her own plans. Kaye is drawn into the Seelie plot, unaware of the true cost to herself and the real danger to the humans she values.

The companion novel to Tithe is Valiant, set in New York City around the same time. Ironside concludes the series.

Valiant by Holly BlackRobin: Valiant is the second in the Modern Faerie Tales series, a companion novel rather than a sequel to Tithe. This novel is a rather grim tale of exiled faeries in New York City. The story centres on a human girl, Val, who flees from her suburban home to the city, ending up living in a subway with Lolli, a wild girl, Dave, a discontented dreamer, and Luis, Dave’s responsible but morose brother. Luis has the Faerie Sight – which means he not only recognizes a faerie when he sees one, but is completely unfooled any kind of fey glamour. The trio have an uneasy relationship with the exiles, and through them Val meets a number of the faerie folk.

Why the faeries, forced for a variety of reasons to leave their courts, end up in this crowded city is not entirely clear, except perhaps that the city is outside the influence of the courts, being so permeated with iron. The iron poisons the exiles, so that they must take a special potion to survive, a potion brewed by the troll alchemist Ravus. Ravus who, rather amusingly, lives under Brooklyn Bridge, is perhaps the most striking character in the book, described as “tall and lean as a basketball player… lank hair, black as ink, framed the grayish-green skin of his face. Two undershot incisors jutted from his jaw, their tips sinking into the soft flesh of his upper lip. His eyes: the black irises were dusted around the edges with gold, like the eyes of a frog.” He has a secret sorrow, and cannot endure sunlight. An unlikely romantic hero, but there is never any accounting for human taste.

A thrilling duel in the underground Unseelie Court, where a couple of the characters from Tithe can be spotted, followed by a rather weepy episode, provides the rather cinematic climax to the novel.

Luis also appears in Ironside, and some of the other characters of Valiant make cameo appearances.

Ironside by Holly BlackRobin: Ironside, the final book of the Modern Faerie Tales series, returns to Kaye, the heroine of Tithe, though Luis from Valiant features prominently. Roiben, reluctantly crowned king of the Unseelie Court, sends his pixie sweetheart Kaye away to protect her from the awfulness of his subjects, making the two of them miserable. Kaye has decided she must confess her changeling identity to her mother and bring the true Kaye, still a child, back from Faerieland. She also has the problem of her human friend Cornelius who is ruthlessly seeking revenge on the faeries for his humiliation and his sister’s death. When Corny is cursed with a deathly touch, they seek out the reputed curse-remover in New York, who turns out to be Luis.

Meanwhile, the faerie war has broken out again, and the first gambit inflicts serious losses on the Unseelie side. Just when Queen Silarial seems sure to win, she offers to settle the war the old-fashioned way – by single combat. Clearly, she is up to something yet again.

The romance is nicely handled – well, not too sickening, anyway! Kaye and Roiben seem poorly matched, what with Roiben being a knight of the faerie Gentry and Kaye a mere pixie, but they are both in-betweeners with divided loyalties – they don’t belong were they are, and they don’t belong where they came from either. This situation finds a rough-and-ready resolution by the end, with them both dividing their time, in the manner of Persephone, half above, half below.