a Black spell

I’ve been buried in books lately. The intervening time between now and Clarion West is slipping through my fingers like mist. I’m trying to read as much material by my instructors as possible: novels and short stories.

As a break, however, I read Valiant: A Modern Tale of Faerie by Holly Black. Black will be teaching at Clarion East this year, and Valiant just won the inaugural Andre Norton Award at the Nebulas for best young adult fiction.

It’s somewhat of a disservice to label Valiant as a young adult novel, because that might deny a powerful and entertaining book to a larger audience. Black is a wonderful storyteller: both on a technical and emotional level. Her characters are believable, flawed, and yet deeply human — and her faeries are satisfyingly quixotic and mercurial.

At the heart of the story is Valerie Russell: a seventeen-year-old lacrosse player from New Jersey who witnesses something so awful that she seeks refuge in the streets of New York City to burn the memory from her mind. There she hooks up with other homeless kids: the savage and beautiful Lolli, Dave, who hangs on Lolli’s every word and gesture, and his older half-blind brother Luis. The group live in the subway system, but more strange is the fact that Luis is in service to a troll, Ravus. Valerie gets caught up in the strange world of faerie, its vicious dramas and uncertain rules, while succumbing to the lure of a drug her friends call Never, which takes away pain in exchange for magic. But there is one hard and fast rule of faerie: everything comes with a price.

The almost-adults of Black’s novel are confused, passionate, funny, and flirt at the edges of maturity. They are outcasts, who band together to slip between the cracks of the world so they can conjure up a shared reality. But, they lack the judgement and grounding that comes with being eased into adulthood, and their world fluctuates between pain and hilarity. Black does a superb job of depicting the mood swings and difficulties of teenagers without ever tripping into angsty posturing. Her characters are adrift in a strange world, and without a compass they negotiate a hazardous route as they attempt to solve their problems.

Black does not flinch from tough subjects such as drug-taking and teenage sex, but it’s never exploitative, and always honest. Valerie is a memorable heroine: tough, yet unsure, but intensely loyal. She corrects mistakes and follows her heart. It’s a book that sinks into hooks into you and won’t let you go until you’ve finished with it – rather like a faerie glamour.

This enchanting novel inspires me to catch up with the rest of Ms. Black’s canon.