When I think of fairies, I think of wild places in Ireland and Wales: green glens and fairy forts and fairy rings. But what about our increasingly urbanized world? Might there be trolls living under the Manhattan Bridge, or fairies living on the Upper West Side? In Holly Black’s Valiant, there are indeed fairies living in New York: exiles from the Courts forced to live in the iron-infested city. When seventeen-year-old Val runs away to New York, she discovers a world she never suspected existed, a world of power and beauty and danger.
Val’s call to adventure comes in an unusual way: she catches her boyfriend sleeping with her mother. This ultimate betrayal sends Val over the edge, and she runs away to New York. With no plans and no direction, Val makes friends with a couple of drifters and moves in with them in a makeshift home in the subway tunnels. Soon, she discovers that her new friends have dealings with the fairies; the leader of the ragtag group, Luis, serves a troll named Ravus and makes deliveries for him of a potion that helps the fairies to endure the iron in the city. Val’s friends call the potion Never, and have discovered that if they inject it into their veins, they are endowed for a short time with faerie glamour. Before long, Val finds herself bound into Ravus’ service as well, and is drawn ever deeper into the world of the fairies, a world far removed from human existence.
Valiant is an absolutely brilliant book. It wasn’t hard to read it in less than 24 hours, because I couldn’t put it down. As in Black’s earlier book, Tithe, the characters are rich and hauntingly complex, and appearances often belie what lies inside.
One of the most amazing things about this book is watching the humans become more fairy-like under the influence of Never. Fairies have always been “other” from a human perspective. They have their own society with its own rules and values that sometimes seem incomprehensible to us, and they aren’t constrained by the values and morals of human society. We accept this; their other-ness is part of what makes them so fascinating to us. But there’s something horrifying about watching humans throw away the constraints of human morals and live outside human society, stealing and using people and even killing on a whim. Part of what makes Black’s book resonate is that it is as much about humans as it is about fairies.
As with Tithe,Valiant is not a book for children. Personally, as a parent, I’d like to tell my son that he can’t read it until he is at least 30: there’s entirely too much sex and stealing and shooting up drugs. The fact that the drug is not of human origin makes it no less shocking. But, realistically, today’s teens know all about that stuff, for the most part, and will probably be less shocked by it than I was. And there is a lesson in there about the consequences of drug use that is probably more palatable to teens because of the shocking nature of the delivery.
Valiant is not directly a sequel to Tithe; the characters and the story are different, and one need not have read Tithe to read Valiant. However, some of the events and characters from Tithe come into the story briefly, and will probably be more comprehensible if you have read Tithe.
All in all, Valiant is an amazing book, mythic in quality and modern in delivery, that will touch you in unexpected ways.