The Poison Eaters by Holly Black
Author Holly Black is best known for her young adult urban fantasy trilogy Modern Faerie Tales, as well as for The Spiderwick Chronicles books for younger readers. Her first short story collection, The Poison Eaters, does have a few stories about faeries, including one about some Modern Faerie Tales characters. But the stories here are about much more, with vampires and werewolves and unicorns, women who eat poison and readers who can go inside books, a girl who challenges the devil to an eating contest, and a bacchanalia in a private prep school.
As an introduction to Black’s writing, The Poison Eaters is excellent. There’s no need to be familiar with any of her previous work to enjoy most of the stories -- only two stories are set in her Modern Faerie Tales universe, and one in the world of her upcoming trilogy The Curse Workers. Of these, only “Going Ironside” and “The Land of Heart’s Desire” fell flat for me as an unfamiliar reader. Authors writing short stories in established worlds often seem to have trouble writing for both readers who already know the characters and those who don’t. “In Vodka Veritas,” the story of a bacchanalia in the prep school setting of her upcoming novel White Cat, however, works well on its own and left me curious to know more about Wallingford Preparatory.
The settings range from urban to medieval to dark fantasy, and Black does equally well with all of them. Her characters are interesting, strong, well drawn, and diverse, although I would have liked to see a few queer girls to balance the queer boys. Black’s writing is vivid and beautiful, although it is a given that most of the stories will have a twist at the end, or everything will not be as it first appeared. Nearly all of the stories are dark, in the sense that there is looming danger and creepy things waiting for the protagonists. Some are tragic and some are not, but a thread of hope runs through most of them. Like much current young adult fantasy, particularly urban fantasy, there is here sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, and grit as well as lurking elves, curses, and malevolent teachers.
Most of the stories in The Poison Eaters were previously published in anthologies or magazines. Black wrote “The Dog King” and “The Land of Heart’s Desire” for this volume, and while the latter left me indifferent, the former was one of my favorite stories in the book. “The Dog King” is a medieval fantasy story about wolves and humans, where not everything is quite as it seems.
Several other stories stood out to me as well. “The Night Market,” a story about a Filipino girl who challenges an enkanto (more often spelled engkanto) for her sister’s life. The setting was vivid without being exoticized, and as far as I could tell, well-researched. “The Coat of Stars” is a lovely take on the traditional story of someone saving his or her lover from the elves, with an engaging hero and a beautiful rendering of uncomfortable but loving family dynamics. I also loved the title story, “The Poison Eaters,” a dark fantasy about three young women raised to be poison. “The Coldest Girl in Coldtown” (available online for free at BSCreview) is an interesting take on urban vampire stories, where the vampires are restricted to a walled town, and only the romantic fantasy and not the reality escapes the walls. It’s a needed critique of much current young adult vampire fiction, and I would love to see a novel set in this world.
While not all of the stories in The Poison Eaters struck me as strongly as these, I enjoyed the majority of them. This is a diverse enough collection that most fantasy readers should find something to their tastes. Black has a talent for creating believable settings and characters that seem deep and fully realized even in the few pages of a short story. Good short story authors are rare, and that she can writes short so well left me wanting to see what she can do in the space of a novel.
The Poison Eaters by Holly Black
Big Mouth House