There’s one thing to note before I shimmy down into this: The Modern Faerie Tales is a very bizarre trio of books. Yes, it goes Tithe, Valiant, then Ironside, but you do not need to read Valiant at all, and Tithe/Ironside are far more of a duology. At this point I don’t know if I’ll read Valient or not, hence me skipping it.
I suppose I should also note the irony of me declaring this a ‘good fae book’ when I read my first fae book in 2017 and… actually, all but one of the books I’ve read HAVE been by Holly Black. I’m no expert in the genre technically, but I have been doing reading and research since I am writing a book with fae in it, plus DND has exposed me to it… as well as my hatred for SJM’s fae. So I’m not well read, but I know what a good faerie portrayel should contain, and Ironside has finally hit that mark.
Roiben is king of the Unseelie court, Kaye is dealing with the knowledge she’s a changeling, and Corny is reeling from his abuse in the fae courts. Kaye and Roiben are dating, but Kaye- feeling out of place in both the human and fae worlds- decides to formally declare her affection to Roiben. This, per fae law, means he has to give her a quest before she can see him again and be his consort. Roiben sends Kaye on an impossible quest- find a faerie who can speak an untruth- meaning the two are separated for most of the book.
For Kaye, this is essentially a breakup. Feeling despondent over her identity, she decides to tell her mother she’s a changeling. Her mother does not take this well and kicks her out, demanding her ‘real daughter’ back and calling Kaye a monster. Meanwhile, the Seelie court is trying to get Kaye on their side, as Kaye knows Roiben’s true name and can essentially command him to do whatever she wishes.
Corny is along with her, still resentful of his human nature and now more than ever afraid of being hurt again. He tries to learn what he can of fae and how to best protect himself, though when he winds up with a curse to wither all he touches, he finds himself reluctant to cure himself- enjoying the feeling of any power at all.
In the unseelie court, new king Roiben feels he is doomed to die and can only hold out for so long, but will not return to the Seelie Queen (his abusive ex), vowing to go down with a fight. He feels immense loathing for everyone around him and himself most of all. When crowned king he is told to have a ‘heart of ice’, but he struggles to do so, especially when his sister in the Seelie court declares him her enemy.
Basically, all the plotlines are about identity and feeling like part of more than one world, unable to balance. Kaye is a fae, but not used to having power. She isn’t welcome in the Unseelie court for being ‘ironside’ (human-y), and not considered good enough to be Roiben’s consort because she’s only a pixie. Corny has learned about fae, and especially learned he is powerless against them, so much so that he would rather a curse than have no weapons at all. Roiben hated his time in the Unseelie court, but as king now must protect his new court and vow vengeance on what used to be his home.
Along for the ride is also Luis, a teen who breaks curses for a living and is paranoid of the fae as they constantly ruin everyone’s lives around him (fair enough).
I really enjoyed these themes, as well as the other major thread of family (Roiben vs his sister who has been turned against him, Kaye vs her mother vs the ‘real’ human Kaye, Luis vs his dying, difficult brother Dave, Corny vs his recently murdered sister). I felt the messages and ideas were strong and well presented- there was both a fun plot and characters but also a lot of interesting ideas properly explored, leaving me thinking about a lot of things.
One of the strongest themes is related to identity, and is the kicking off point of the plot: the idea of a faerie that can tell a lie. Kaye of course solves this by the end, so she can end up happily again with Roiben, but the book ends with a different solution to the puzzle than the one previously used. Kaye points to herself and says ‘this is me’, something which is both true and a lie. She is herself, but she is also a changeling, just as she is not human but very human, and her mother’s daughter without being such. This duality and caught-between identity works into the ending for every character too, where they learn to find balance and self without having strict labels or feeling pulled (or confined) to exist in one way.
Basically, I really really like the ideas in this book! I know I have cruel prince and wicked king both like 5 stars, but those… I’m due to reread before I deep dive too far, but I feel they are more focused on cool characters and the idea of a cutthroat world. Here, I felt the relationships were extremely genuine (I want to know more about Roiben and Kaye and read more about them!), and that the world was harsher and more honest than in later Black books.
Here’s what I want in a book about fae.
I want them to not be human. They can wear human appearances, but they have different morality and understandings. They are basically just aliens. Their societies, biology, and ideas are very different from humans.
I want them to have strict rules. This is the biggest one: fae are trickster spirits, broadly. They obey rules and laws, some quite strange. They have certain unbreakable ways of doing things, such as an inability to lie, and enjoy wordplay and games. Let them have riddles.
I want them to be based in nature. Part of the modern faerie tales is exploring them in a modern setting, but I want their base to be the natural world. Not sprawling urbanization and cities but fields, camps, caves, and plants at the base of their society.
I want them to be diverse. I’m a sucker for ‘attractive perfect fae’, sure, but I want that beauty to be eerie- and I want more than just that. I’m guilty of not including it, but give me fae as a broad label, not just pretty people- little monsters, spirits, ghouls, hags, etc! Similarly, give them different skin tones and appearances too.
Ironside (and Black generally) is very good at understanding the above. Reading a fae book, I want to see some inhumans who love riddles cause weird problems and get solved through what amounts to magical bureaucracy, you know? There’s curses and wordplay and riddles and all kinds of magic to the world here, and I love it.
Perhaps Valiant was the transitional book in this case, but Ironside is downright different from Tithe in one specific way: it’s way more PG. Tithe had a lot of sex, drugs, alcohol, and the strongest of language. This book still mentions cigarettes and there’s a near orgy at one point, but it is far cleaner than Tithe. I mentioned Tithe kind of felt like Black writing YA for the first time and going all out on the edge, and yeah, compared to the wild first few chapters of Tithe, Ironside is very very tame. I can’t think of any explicit scenes (when I say ‘near orgy’, a human is induced by magic to kiss a lot of fae and there’s mentions of touching, but it’s hazy and not descriptive).
Is this good or bad? I think it’s for the best, since Tithe sometimes felt like it was trying too hard to be raw. There’s still some edge to Ironside, but it doesn’t rely on the f word to be dramatic or sexual assault. The emotions of things are still strong, but the writing has been pared down (and gone up in quality).