Citizen Review: The Poison Eaters

We continue our occasional series of customer reviews with The Poison Eaters by Holly Black. The book will be available in February.

The Poison Eaters

Holly Black’s novels for young adults combine, in a vivid and visceral way, folkloric raw material and the pangs of contemporary adolescence. Every tale in her new collection, The Poison Eaters, accomplishes this same alchemy in short story form. The result is concentrated, distilled, weapons-grade stuff, and it is beautiful. It’s like very strong espresso, delicious to sip but powerful enough to keep you up all night wishing you could breathe comfortably with blankets pulled over your head.

Some of Black’s stories use old faerie lore–the really old stuff (you can tell by the spelling) in which the Fair Folk are far more frightening than flowery—and situate themselves in the same world as Black’s Modern Faerie Tale novels. Others are fairy tales of the familiar, Grimm-collected sort, concerning princes, princesses, and the inheritance of thrones. These turn out to be the most likely to cause nightmares. There are also queer stories here, both in the sense of having queer protagonists and in the sense of queering reality as it is commonly understood, making the familiar strange and the strange somehow comforting.

Many contradictions come together and dance in Black’s fiction: the uncanny mixes with the ordinary, old lore walks in contemporary settings, and childhood collides with maturity in that heartbreaking incongruity for which “young adult” is as good a name as any. Every ending, when it comes, presents another contraction: they are simultaneously astonishing and inevitable. The last words of a last bedtime story, told by a king to the son who tried to poison him, will surprise you. The judicious and sacrilegious use of paper and scissors will surprise you. The choices made by Matilda, “The Coldest Girl in Coldtown,” who teaches others to be so very careful what they wish for, will surprise you—and yet, afterwards, you will know that these stories could not possibly have ended any other way.

The Poison Eaters will reward the brave, and offer strange and powerful comforts to anyone who is, was, or is about to become an adolescent. The book offers something more useful than the old instruction to avoid eating faerie gifts: it provides both the poisons and the antidotes. Trust that these cures will work.

William Alexander lives in Minneapolis with spouse, new baby, and cat, and is always overjoyed to hear words used well. These are his current favorites: “We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”