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Literature / Modern Faerie Tales

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The Modern Faerie Tales is an Urban Fantasy trilogy by Holly Black, including the books Tithe, Valiant and Ironside.

Tithe (2002) begins with Kaye Fierch returning to her childhood home of New Jersey after her rocker mother's boyfriend attempts to stab her mother after a gig. Once home, Kaye tries to reconnect with some of her old childhood friends—including some of her "imaginary" ones, a trio of faeries. While she's no stranger to the Fair Folk, she stumbles into the dangerous faerie courts when she meets a completely different faerie, Roiben, a knight from the Unseelie Court.

Valiant (2005) introduces a new protagonist: the Tomboy runaway Valerie Russell. She runs to New York and gets caught up with teen vagrants Lolli, Dave, and Luis. Her new friends are hardly normal, and are in fact couriers to a fae named Ravus, a troll that literally lives under a bridge and who makes a special drug for the exiled fae that eases the iron sickness.

Ironside (2007) is a sequel to Tithe, and returns to Kaye as the protagonist. Roiben is soon to be crowned King of the Unseelie Court. Kaye drunkenly swears her love to Roiben during his coronation, and is consequently forbidden from seeing him until she finds the impossible: a faerie who can tell a lie. At the same time, guilt from being a changeling causes her to expose the truth to her mother and find her mother's true child, somewhere in the Seelie Courts. While there, she gets caught up in the Seelie Queen's plans to take over the Unseelie Court, and must find a way to save both herself and Roiben.

All three books were republished as an omnibus in 2019. Additional short stories with the characters and setting are:

  • "The Land of Heart's Desire", from the anthology The Poison Eaters and Other Stories
  • "The Lament of Lutie-Loo", included in the trilogy omnibus and the 2020 edition of Ironside
  • "A Visit to the Impossible Lands", included in the paperback of The Cruel Prince

The Darkest Part of the Forest is set in the same universe, as is The Folk of the Air.

NOT FOR HUMANS is a short crossover between Modern Faerie Tales and The Shadowhunter Chronicles, written by the authors of both series for a charity event.

This series provides examples of:

  • Accidental Murder: Ravus accidentally killed Tamson in a duel, which is the reason that he was exiled from the Seelie Court. However, it turns out that Mabry had weakened Tamson's armor prior to the duel because Tamson knew that she was working for The Unseelie Court.
  • Addiction-Powered: The faerie magic that comes from taking Never.
  • Alcohol-Induced Idiocy: Kaye gets a little too drunk on faerie wine in Ironside and swears her fealty to Roiben—although she knows from the first book that doing this in the faerie courts is absolutely dangerous.
  • All Girls Want Badboys: Subverted, or at least played more realistically than usual. The two female protagonists do seem to go for the "bad boy" type, but neither of them fit the standard criteria of "good girl" (given their shop-lifting, colorful vocabularies, substance-abuse, and liberal attitude about sex), making their attraction seem much more natural.
  • All Trolls Are Different: Trolls are slightly larger and much uglier than most faeries, with greenish skin, protruding teeth, and black-and-gold eyes. They turn to stone in sunlight, but will recover when no longer exposed. Troll blood breeds true even when mixed with human. Ravus, the one major character who's a troll, is a little intimidating but a genuinely good guy, although it's indicated in other books that this isn't true of all trolls.
  • All Women Are Prudes: Refreshingly averted. Kaye is immediately sexually attracted to Roiben, and Val and Lolli's sexual frustration is an important plot point in Valiant.
  • Armored Closet Gay: In the original edition of Valiant, Ruth responds to Jen's homophobic behavior by calling her a "closet case."
  • Beast and Beauty: Ravus and Val.
  • Bed Trick: Dave glamours himself up to look like Luis in order to seduce Lolli.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality
  • Black Eyes of Evil: Averted with Kaye, not so averted with a lot of the other faeries.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: Roiben points out that classifying the Seelie and Unseelie Courts as good and evil respectively is an oversimplification. Both courts have very little regard for the wellbeing of mortals, and it seems the Seelie court's opposition to killing is less a moral concern than an aesthetic one.
  • Big Applesauce: The books take place in New York and New Jersey, usually commuting between the two during the novels. New York is also known as Ironside, where the exiled fae are sent.
  • Big Brother Instinct: Luis. He does absolutely everything for his brother, and tries his best to take care of him.
  • Body Horror: When Kaye learns she's a pixie, her skin starts to "slough off like a sunburn", including her face.
    "Her eyes itched, and she rubbed her knucklebones over them. Something came off against her fingers. It felt like a contact lens, but when she looked down, she saw that it was skin[...]"
  • Bonding over Missing Parents: Ravus and Val. Both of their fathers left their families, and both of their mothers betrayed them.
  • Break His Heart to Save Him: In Ironside, Roiben gives Kaye an impossible task—to find a faerie who can lie—in order to keep her from becoming his consort, and by extension, a subject of the Unseelie Court.
  • Break the Cutie: Roiben, after he comes to the Unseelie Court.
    • Also, Kaye, to some degree, and Ethine, after Ironside.
  • The Cameo: Roiben appears briefly in Valiant, acting in his position as Unseelie King.
    • Val and Ruth also appear briefly at the end of Ironside for Dave's funeral.
  • Cannot Tell a Lie: Faeries can only "bend the truth until it snaps under its own weight," i.e, they can't lie per se, but are very, very fond of leaving out important information or "little details" that could be willfully damaging to the hearer. This becomes a plot point in Ironside when Kaye is required to find a faerie that can tell an untruth for Roiben's quest. 'Cause she's a wily girl, she uses Exact Words to solve the riddle.
    "Say that the tea is cold. Just try. Maybe you can lie if you push yourself."
    "The tea is ... ," Kaye said, and stopped. Her mouth was still open, but it was as though her tongue were frozen.
    "What's stopping you?" Corny asked.
    "I don't know. I feel panicked and my mind starts racing, looking for a safe way to say it. I feel like I'm suffocating. My jaw just locks. I can't make any sound come out."
  • Changeling Fantasy: Kaye. While barely brushed on in the first book, it stirs up a lot of angst in Ironside.
  • Chekhov's Gun: In Ironside, Kaye impulsively shoplifts a pair of fur-lined handcuffs, which later come in handy for taking Ethine prisoner. It's especially fortunate as a conventional steel pair would have been harmful to her.
  • Chekhov's Skill: In Tithe, Kaye's shoplifting skills come in handy later when she has to discreetly slip something into a drink.
  • Cold Iron: Faeries are burned by contact with iron.
  • Coming-Out Story: "Mom, you know the forbidden love Spock has for Kirk? Well, me too."
  • Courtly Love: Played straight and subverted with Roiben.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Oh, Ravus, where do we start with you? First, your mom and siblings beat you repeatedly as a child to get you to fight, then when your dad saw you all as trolls he took off, prompting your mother to disown you, then you accidentally ran your first and best friend through with a sword, then you got exiled to New York/Ironside, and now you're accused for poisoning fey with your medicine. BOY, it must be great to be you!
    • Also, Luis and Dave. Their father killed their mother, shot Dave in the chest, then committed suicide. They now live on the street running errands for the fey.
    • We don't even know that much about Roiben's past, but from the time he sets foot in the Unseelie Court, there seems to be no end of darkness and troubles.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: Played somewhat straight with Roiben and later Kaye and Ravus who end up as part of the Unseelie Court, but are usually good and moral characters. The Unseelie Court as a WHOLE is pretty messed up, though.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Though usually The Stoic, Roiben gets several snarky moments. Kaye says that she "liked him more before he had a sense of humour".
  • Death Seeker: Luis falls temporarily into this when his brother dies. He tries to kill himself using Corny's withering curse—but the curse is broken the instant he brings Corny's hands to his face, since his tears act as running salt water.
  • Declaration of Protection: Roiben, toward Kaye. He doesn't always tell her though.
  • Disappeared Dad: With the exception of maybe Corny, ALL of the main characters have one in one way or the other.
  • The Dog Bites Back: Roiben to Nicnevin. Corny to Nephamael. Lastly, Ethine to Silarial.
  • Drugs Are Bad: Particularly faerie drugs.
  • Dude Looks Like a Lady: Inverted example with Val after she shaves her head in Valiant. Even lampshaded where it is pointed out that in her reflection, it is now a young delicate boy looking back at her.
  • Dude, She's Like in a Coma: In Valiant, Val wakes up to Dave undressing her after glamouring her to resemble Lolli.
  • Egg Sitting: In Valiant, Ruth and Val take care of a flour sack together, which prompts Jen to call them lesbians.
  • Ethical Slut: Kaye, according to her best friend Janet, since she is initially only interested in Roiben as a hot boy to hook up with before she develops serious feelings for him.
  • Evil Redhead: Nicnevin is an evil faerie with blood-red hair.
  • Evil Versus Evil: Silarial is just as evil, if not more, than her twin Nicnevin.
    • Silarial comes off as the good one but when the reader gets a good look into her it's easy to see she's the worst of two evils when compared to Nicnevin, who while not thrilled about the truce between the courts, is content with it nonetheless. Compared to Silarial who not only wants Nicnevin dead and wants to take the Unseelie court, but wants to destroy it and all the fey part of it, and is willing to sacrifice any and all of her faeries to do so, Nicnevin seems like a saint.
    • Silarial allows the (almost) sacrifice of one of her changelings, trades off her best knight/lover to be tortured by her sister, and was willing to sacrifice one of her hand maidens for a chance of getting the Unseelie court.
  • Exact Words: A faerie commanded by their True Name is compelled to obey the order, but only to the exact letter of what was commanded. Thus, when ordered by his full name to catch Kaye, Roiben grabs her - and immediately releases her, since the order said nothing about keeping her there.
  • Faerie Court: The Unseelie court are a group of murderous, hedonistic Fae led by the deranged Queen Nicnevin. In contrast, her sister Queen Silarial controls the Seelie Court, who are seemingly better, but in reality can be just as evil and vicious in their own way. Both courts are eventually dissolved by King Roiben, who takes the throne from both of them and founds the more peaceful Court of Termites using the members of both courts.
  • The Fair Folk
  • A Family Affair: In Valiant, Valerie Russel discovers that her boyfriend Tom is sleeping with her mother. This causes her to run away from home due to feeling betrayed.
  • Family Eye Resemblance: Roiben's sister Ethine has the same hair and eye color as him, which causes Kaye to momentarily mistake her for him in Ironside.
  • Fantastic Drug: Never, the fairy medicine in Valiant, also has some very potent and magical effects on humans when they shoot it up.
  • The Film of the Book: Both Tithe and Valiant have been picked up. Tithe by Jim Henson Company, and Valiant by MTV.
  • First-Episode Twist: A few chapters into Tithe, Kaye is revealed to be a faerie changeling.
  • Five-Finger Discount: Kaye and Janet are mentioned to shoplift. Kaye got her two pet rats this way, and shows her skills to Janet while they're hanging out at the mall. She has personal rules about what stores she hits, to "minimiz[e] [her] karmic damage." Her skills come in handy later when she has to slip something into a drink.
  • Geeky Analogy: Corny comes out to his Star Trek-loving parents by saying "You know that forbidden love Kirk has for Spock? Well, me too."
  • Genre Savvy: Kaye is enough to ask Roiben for his True Name (after having pretty much wasted the first two of her three questions, though).
  • Glass Weapon: The faerie-made glass sword in Valiant. When Val is stopped by a police officer for carrying it on the subway, she manages to convince them that it's ornamental by unwrapping it a bit to show that it's made of glass.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: Nicnevin and Silarial too because she cares about nothing but getting her way.
  • Going Cold Turkey: Val quits Never during her fight with Mabry. She gets cravings afterwards, but continues to stay off of it.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: Roiben's got a bunch, revealed in his shirtless scenes. Corny gets a few from his night with Nephamael.
    • Ravus and Val both received some courtesy of Mabry near the end of Valiant.
  • Idiot Ball: In Tithe. Sure, Kaye, eating and drinking at an eerie feast in the Unseelie Court is a brilliant and tasty idea! Justified, as it is a classic fairy tale motif that faerie food is irresistibly appealing. Still, Kaye is usually much more Genre Savvy than that.
  • I Just Want to Be Special: Corny briefly flirts with this idea in both Tithe and Ironside.
  • I Know Madden Kombat: Val's lacrosse practice turns out to be useful when she's called on to fight with a sword (or pipe). By no means does it make her an Instant Expert, however.
  • I Know Your True Name: Faeries can be controlled by their true name, therefore these names are a closely guarded secret.
  • Important Haircut:
    • In Valiant, Val shaves her head on the train after discovering her boyfriend's affair with her mother.
    • During Tithe, Ethine has hair down to her knees, having not cut it since Roiben left the Seelie Court. In Ironside, she's cut it short, having declared Roiben dead to her.
  • Impossible Task: In Ironside Kaye is forbidden from seeing the one she loves until she can find a faerie that can tell a lie, but promised his hand if she can. She solves this by claiming she is able to lie, without mentioning that she means lie down on the ground. Which is a sort of lie in itself.
  • Insubstantial Ingredients: Ravus's alchemy requires such ingredients as 'The Breath of a Dying Man' and 'Summer Sunlight'. Note that these can be found in cigarette stubs and cut grass, respectively.
  • Interspecies Romance: Val, a human, and Ravus, a troll.
  • Invisible to Normals: Faeries cannot be seen by humans unless they have The Sight.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Plenty of male characters, like Ravus, Roiben, and Luis.
  • Kick the Dog: Lolli kicks the cat she stole into the path of a train when she gets sick of her mewing. It's fair to assume she lost a lot of fans at that point.
  • Kidnapper's KFC: In Ironside, Kaye takes Ethine hostage so that she and her companions can leave Faerie safely. They stop at a diner to get a bite to eat, which also serves as an opportunity to assess their situation and discuss their next move. Ethine, being unfamiliar with human food, looks at the menu awhile before just ordering blueberry pie. She later declares it "barely edible."
    The waitress came and poured coffee into their cups. Corny raised his in one yellow-gloved hand. "Here's to us." He looked at Ethine. "Brought to this table by friendship or fate—or because you're a prisoner—and here's to the sweet balm of coffee, by the grace of which we shall accomplish the task before us and ken what we need to ken. Okay?"
  • Kinky Cuffs: In Ironside, Kaye steals a pair of fuzzy handcuffs at a fetish store, and later uses them on Ethine.
  • Kleptomaniac Hero: Kaye and Val both enjoy a little shop-lifting.
  • Late-Arrival Spoiler: The blurb of Ironside doesn't try to hide that Roiben becomes Unseelie King and that Kaye is a faerie.
  • Light Is Not Good: The faeries of the Seelie court are almost as dangerous as those of the Unseelie.
  • Literal Ass-Kissing: Used as a joke and as a source of horror in Tithe: after finding out Rath Roiben Rye's True Name, the main character sarcastically tells him to kiss her ass, not realizing he's magically compelled to obey.
    "That is the nature of servitude, Kaye. It is literal minded and not at all clever. Be more careful with your epithets."
  • Literal Genie: How the Literal Ass-Kissing incident occurs. Another example is when the big bad gets Rath Roiben Rye's true name and orders him to grab the escaping heroine. Roiben promptly grabs her hair... and then lets her go again, snarking, "You may be well versed in following orders, but you are a novice at giving them."
    • It's established in the earlier Literal Ass-Kissing scene that invoking a faerie's true name always works like this — they're compelled to do no more and no less than the Exact Words of the order, and an ill-considered or poorly-worded command rarely results in what the person invoking the name actually desires.
  • Long-Haired Pretty Boy: Roiben, an elf with "long pewter hair". Kaye first encounters him in the rain and severely injured, i.e., sopping wet and covered in mud and his own blood, and even in that state Kaye describes him as "beautiful in a way that made her breath catch" (this is one of the reasons she knows he's a faerie).
  • Lying by Omission: Kaye invokes this to fulfill a quest to find a faerie who could lie, which is impossible. She succeeds by claiming SHE can lie. She can lie...on the ground.
  • Mirthless Laughter:
    • In Ironside, after Kaye reveals to her mother that she's a faerie, she starts laughing nervously and can't stop.
      The nervous giggling wouldn't stop. It was like the absurdity and the horror needed to escape somehow and the only way out was through Kaye's mouth.
    • In Ironside, after Roiben learns that his opponent in the duel will be his own sister:
      His laugh was almost a sob, short and terrible.
  • Mistaken Identity: In Ironside, Kaye momentarily mistakes a hooded Ethine for Roiben and starts to give "him" a piece of her mind before realizing her mistake, to her mortification.
  • Morphic Resonance: Faeries keep a trait when they transform. The troll Ravus, for example, turns into a human with golden eyes.
  • Mr. Fanservice: Roiben.
  • Mrs. Robinson: Val's mother has an affair with Tom.
  • Mystical White Hair: Roiben and his sister are faeries with white hair.
  • Nobody Poops: Averted in Valiant, when Val has to pee in a bucket while staying with the squatters in the subway.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Subverted. When Luis starts acting weird, it's barely remarked upon since there are other, more serious things going on. Turns out it's not Luis; it's Dave, using Never to glamour himself into looking like his brother.
  • Orwellian Retcon: The omnibus edition (and 2020 reprinting of the individual books) makes some changes here and there. Among others:
    • A couple descriptions framing Kaye's asian features as fey-like are removed, as are a few mentions of her eyes being upturned/slanted (both in human and faerie form).
    • Corny doesn't call himself a faggot, and his Coming-Out Story has him explicitly saying that he's gay.
    • Jen's homophobia is mostly removed.
    • Ironside adds a sentence mentioning the High Court and Court of Termites, which were never mentioned in the original editions.
  • Our Kelpies Are Different: A Kelpie appears in the first book. Kelpies here are depicted as waterhorses which trick unwitting people into coming with them and then drowning them. Kelpies can also shapeshift into more handsome forms to captivate their victims.
  • Our Mermaids Are Different: The pointy-toothed, people-eating kind. Although they can be bribed with raw steak and jewelry.
  • Our Pixies Are Different: Pixies are a group of immortal fae who have a pair of glass-stained wings on their backs. They are known to have abnormal and different then normal-looking skin colors such as green. The Protagonist of two of the books in the trilogy, Kaye Fierch is a pixie herself who ended up in the human realm as a baby after she was swapped with a human child by her faerie parents.
  • Parental Abandonment: Seems to be the norm in the faerie kingdoms, as seen in "The Land of Heart's Desire".
  • Poisonous Person: Corny, when a faerie curses him to wither everything he touches.
  • Porn Stash: Corny has one of yaoi. Kaye winds up reading some at one point.
  • P.O.V. Sequel: Sort of. The sequel short story "The Land of Heart's Desire" in "The Poison Eaters" is written around Roiben, as opposed to Kaye.
  • Precision F-Strike: Roiben manages to achieve this in a series full of liberal swearing. Lampshaded by Kaye.
    Roiben: I am telling you shit!
  • Put on a Bus: Lolli ditches Val and the other teens after Dave overdoses on Never. She doesn't come back.
  • Race Fetish: Kaye's mixed-race looks (half-white and half-Japanese with blonde hair) are the subject of some exoticization by other characters on a couple occasions in the first book. Janet expresses envy over them; later, one of the guys they hang out with presses her about her ethnicity and then makes some fetishizing comments about Japanese schoolgirls.
    Janet sighed and made a face. "Boys all think you're exotic. I'd kill for that."
    Kaye shook her head morosely. What too many white boys liked about Asian girls was weird. It was all mail-order brides and kung fu at the same time.
  • Rape as Drama: Both Val and Lolli are coerced into nonconsensual sex with Dave.
  • Sadistic Choice: In Ironside, Kaye realizes Silarial's plan is to select Ethine as her champion in the duel, forcing Roiben to either kill his own sister or forfeit, which would allow Silarial to run amok.
    Kaye: If he doesn't murder his own sister, Roiben dies. He has to choose between killing her and killing himself.
  • Sensory Overload: Kaye's faerie senses can be overwhelming to her.
  • Shared Universe: The kids from Valiant make a cameo in the first Mortal Instruments book; its author Cassandra Clare is a close friend of Holly Black's.
  • Shirtless Scene: Roiben has several.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Sinister Nudity: In Ironside, when Ethine is being held captive at Corny's house. Corny passes out pajamas to her and Luis and she changes into hers right in front of the two guys, making them uncomfortable. This is part of a sequence that emphasizes her creepy faerie nature.
    ... [Corny] froze as Ethine stripped off her dress with complete nonchalance. The blades of her shoulders were covered with what looked like the buds of wings, pink against the handkerchief white of her skin. As she slid his boxers up her thin legs, she looked over at him and her eyes were chilling in their emptiness.
  • Sinister Subway: In Valiant, the protagonist and her friends live in one. Since they are all homeless children spending a lot of time doing faerie drugs that give them magic, they make it even more sinister than it was when they arrived.
  • Sleight of Handiness: In Tithe, Kaye's shoplifting skills come in handy later when she has to discreetly slip something into a drink.
  • Stacy's Mom: Val's mom.
  • Straight Gay:
    • Corny is gay, and a geeky teen boy who is not conventionally attractive. His interests include yaoi manga.
      Holly Black: With Corny, I wanted to reflect some of my gay friends who aren't great a [sic] picking out clothes, love computers and other geeky stuff, and who don't fit in easily to mainstream culture, even mainstream gay culture.
    • Luis is a street kid with dreadlocks. He ends up getting together with Corny.
  • Taken for Granite: How Val saves Ravus. He can only survive about an hour with his heart cut out, so Val rips open the curtains and exposes him to sunlight, freezing him 'til nightfall to give her some extra time to save him.
  • Tampering with Food and Drink: In Tithe, Kaye poisons Nephamael's wine with iron nails.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: Kaye's realization that she's a faerie.
  • Troubled, but Cute: Roiben.
  • True Sight: Luis was born seeing through faerie glamour. Not only can he not turn it off, he can't tell what's glamoured and what's not, because all glamour is invisible to him.
  • Twofer Token Minority:
    • The two brothers from Valiant are Hispanic and African American.
    • Luis, who is black and is also gay.
  • What Beautiful Eyes!: Val absolutely adores Ravus' eyes.
    "I'm not very good at explaining things," she said. "But I think you have beautiful eyes. I love the gold in them. I love that they're different from my eyes- I see mine all the time and I'm bored with them."

Alternative Title(s): Modern Tales Of Faerie, Tithe, Valiant, Ironside