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Ironside: A Modern Faery's Tale

Review

Ironside: A Modern Faery's Tale

"'Bring me a faery who can tell an untruth and you shall sit beside me as my consort.'"

These are the last words Kaye hears from her faery lover before she is exiled from his presence. According to faerie tradition, she cannot speak to him again until she has completed the impossible quest of finding a faery who can lie.

IRONSIDE is Holly Black's third dark faerie tale and the second to feature Kaye, a changeling pixie who grew up thinking she was a human girl. Banned from Roiben's presence by her task, and made sick by the iron in the human world, Kaye struggles to find a place where she can belong. If TITHE, Black's first book, is about Kaye's discovery of faerie, then IRONSIDE is about the increasing difficulty of Kaye fitting into her human life.

Knowing one day she will have to leave the human world forever, Kaye decides to tell her mother about her true identity. Her mother's disbelief and horror convince Kaye that she must find her human counterpart --- her mother's true daughter --- and return the girl Ironside. This involves bargaining with Silarial, queen of the Seelie Court, making Kaye a pawn in Silarial's dangerous game and endangering Roiben, who is the possessor of the Unseelie crown.

Set near Solstice, IRONSIDE has a dark, wintry palette. It delves into the sadistic power plays that have created the troubled personalities of its characters. Readers finally get to know more about Roiben's background as a hostage to the Unseelie Court. He endures and perpetrates cruelty to please his faerie queen.

Kaye's ignorance of faerie tradition makes her very easy to manipulate. While Roiben's impossible task is designed to keep Kaye independent of the political machinations of the faerie courts, she is lonely without him. It's easy to wonder if she might be better off staying in the human world where she has family and friends. But now that her faerie identity has been revealed, there is no turning back. As cold and cruel as it is in the faerie courts, as dangerous and damaged as Roiben might become, Kaye is supposed to complete her transformation and mature into the faery she has always been.

There has been a resurgence of books about faerie (and other magical beings, like vampires) over the past decade. They usually involve a protagonist torn between two worlds, undergoing some kind of difficult physical transformation and engaging in forbidden love. On some level these books can be read as a metaphor for adolescence, which also features a difficult physical and emotional transformation as teenagers cross over to adult life. The challenges, disappointments and petty personalities one will encounter in adult life are not unlike the vicious indifference of the faerie court.

Holly Black's contribution to the genre is in the unflinching realism of her vision. Her teenage characters look, act and talk in a realistic way. Faerie is rendered with a specificity of detail that makes it seem almost as genuine as her gritty urban settings (though, for many, both worlds will seem equally as fantastic). Readers respond to this dark vision either because they identify with it or because they have a chance to explore it without actually having to experience it themselves.

As much as I enjoyed the book, I have to admit that IRONSIDE left me hungry for a happy ending. I wanted a charm against sadness to reassure me of happily-ever-afters, even in the unpredictable and often unpleasant faerie world. I couldn't help but think of the words Puck uses to resolve the conflicts in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM:

Jack shall have Jill;
Naught shall go ill;
The man shall have his mare again,
And all shall be well.

But the real world is never that simple, and neither is Black's vision of faerie. While all the conflicts in IRONSIDE are resolved for a satisfying ending, the door to faerie deliberately has been left open --- and with it the possibility of more books in this disturbing and deeply imaginative series.

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Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood on August 1, 2011

Ironside: A Modern Faery's Tale
by Holly Black

  • Publication Date: July 1, 2008
  • Genres: Fantasy
  • Paperback: 323 pages
  • Publisher: Simon Pulse
  • ISBN-10: 0689868219
  • ISBN-13: 9780689868214