Poisonous girls whose kisses will kill. A fateful eating contest with the devil. Faeries who return to Ironside, searching for love. A junior prom turned bacchanalia. In twelve short stories, eerie and brimming with suspense and unexpected humor, Holly Black twists the fantastical creatures you thought you knew in ways you’ll never expect.As with most of the Simon & Schuster Galleys I’ve read, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from The Poison Eaters. All I knew about it was that it had a pretty cover and was a collection of short stories, likely supernatural in nature, written by Holly Black. I’ve never read any of Black’s works, but from what I’ve gathered, she seems to be very popular, and specializes in faeries. I remember you couldn’t flip through two blogs a couple of months ago without seeing at least one rave review of her last book, White Cat. That doesn’t necessarily bode well, though; after all, Patricia Briggs, PC Cast, and Stephenie Meyer are all popular authors with trendy books, and, well, gag. I tend to be more weary of the trendier authors and books than the unknowns, because they rarely seem to live up to the generated hype.
But every once in a while, you find a book or author that genuinely seems to deserve the praise they get, and I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that Holly Black may be one of those authors.
The Poison Eaters is indeed a collection of short stories, most of which have been published in various anthologies over the years. They are all supernatural in nature, though the subjects vary wildly, from faeries to werewolves to normal human beings with extraordinary abilities. I’m a fan of short story compilations, because you’re almost always guaranteed to find at least one that suits your taste (plus, they fly by). I was lucky this time – there were several stories I thought were exceptional, and though Poison Eaters did fly by, I was very sad to see it go.
There were two aspects of Black’s writing that had me hooked from page one, and they’re qualities you so rarely find anymore that I’m actually kind of excited to move on to some of her older books. For one, she does an excellent job of creating an atmosphere and conveying emotion. Each story in The Poison Eaters had its own distinct feel, a mood, that emanates from the story. It draws you in and firmly plants you in its world, in its protagonist’s head. You feel what the characters are feeling, and get an amazingly resonant portrait of who they are, what their experiences have taught them, what the world is like from their perspective, simply by the way they act and interact. Without once being told, you get their sense of loneliness and desperation, or bittersweet nostalgia, or helplessness, or stark determination. There’s no need to relate to them, because you are them. They feel like real people, not characters. I’m always impressed by authors who manage to convey and create so much in so few pages, and how they put to shame other authors who can’t do that over the course of a whole book (or worse yet, a series). HI PEOPLE, THIS IS HOW YOU DO IT.
The second aspect I really appreciated about Poison Eaters was Black’s ability to beautifully weave her metaphors and plots into one seamless, unified being. We’ve talked before about how many paranormal romances use the supernatural as a method of addressing cultural or social issues (some more blatantly than others), but…well, let’s just say subtlety isn’t usually their strong point. Most of the time they feel the need to spell out the message they’re trying to get across, or so thinly veil it that there may as well not be a veil at all. Other times it’s so painfully shoehorned in that a Wheel of Morality segment would often be less jarring. But that’s not an issue Black seems to have. Here, for the most part, the characters, the story, and the world are the metaphor.
Reading The Poison Eaters was very much like reading a book of classic fairy tales and folklore – those too were dark, often horrific, but crafted to embody a specific message. It seems to me that the same goes for Black’s tales in The Poison Eaters. Yet, like the classic fairy tales, the stories are engaging enough that you can understand and appreciate the message without feeling preached to.
TL;DR I’m stupidly thrilled here that Black seems to have something to say besides OMG THIS GUY IS HOT.
Also, she has this kind of awesome way of just dropping in supernatural elements without giving them much explanation or exposition. This was unexpectedly refreshing – after so many books whose firsts acts deal almost entirely with introducing the protagonist (and reader) to this newly-constructed world, it’s nice every now and then to just be shown a character who can see unicorns or fold things into books and be told “that’s how it is, deal with it.”
It’d take too long to analyze each of the stories contained in The Poison Eaters individually (there are twelve), so I’m just gonna highlight a few of my favorites and a few of the ones that didn’t work for me.
The opening story, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, was excellent. Not only did Black create an interesting and relatively unique vampire mythos, but she did so in a way that was both realistic and level-headed. Most vampire stories glamorize their undead and the lives they lead, and Black totally subverts that here. Her portrayal was a much-needed grittier, more complex take.
I enjoyed The Night Market probably more than I should have. It’s about a girl on a quest to break the curse a douchebag elf has put on her sister, and is the most traditionally YA of the book (stand up to an asshole and it’s insta!love). It also has the most obvious message (LOVE YOURSELF), but I enjoyed the exotic setting (the Phillipines), mythology, and the spunky heroine.
The Dog King struck me as the most Grimm-like tale, what with its medieval setting and darkness and werewolves and children-eating and secret princes, and it’s awesome. Very unique and morally ambiguous. I love that.
The Coat of Stars was the most real-feeling story of the book, to me. It’s about a gay man still dealing with the loss of his childhood love, and his eventual quest to retrieve him from the fae. The family dynamics here are spot-on, and the portrayal of the protagonist’s life, both in the present and flashbacks, rang sadly true.
Paper Cuts Scissors is probably my favorite story in the book though, just because of the subject matter. In it, a young Library Science major takes a job cataloging the literary collection of an eccentric old man in hopes of freeing his girlfriend from the book she’s trapped herself in. It has the benefit of scenes in which characters from hundreds of different books interact and mingle (awesome and funny), and an underlying, emotionally resonant message of letting go. It’s also one of the least depressing stories in the book, go figure.
In Vodka, Veritas was silly but fun, and Virgin, a very brief story ostensibly about a homeless girl, boy, and unicorn, but really about loss of innocence and the sadness of an unfulfilled desire for the fantastic, was a very good – if heartbreaking – read, as well. I relate 🙁
I didn’t much care for The Boy Who Cried Wolf, Going Ironside, or The Land of Heart’s Desire. The first two were more like flash fiction than short stories, and didn’t really seem to have much of a point. The last felt like it was a deleted scene from one of Black’s other books (perhaps it was), and assumed more familiarity with the characters than I actually had. I just didn’t get a whole lot out of it.
As a whole, I really enjoyed The Poison Eaters. It was wonderfully atmospheric and thoughtful, and I’m eager to get to read some of Black’s other books. I hate to jump on the bandwagon, but she really may have the makings of a new favorite author.
Goddammit, why is it always the faery books that are unexpectedly good? VAMPIRE AND WERE AUTHORS NEED TO REPRESENT.