I hesitated to read another work by Holly Black after feeling disappointed with her novel Tithe. However, her short story collection, The Poison Eaters, is filled with interesting characters in strange and often morally confusing situations. I like how most of the heroes and heroines of Black’s stories don’t end up better off in the end.
In “The Coldest Girl in Cold Town,” Matilda has to become a vampire to save her boyfriend. Then she kidnaps the vampire-obsessed girl who stole her boyfriend and holds the girl hostage, broadcasting the girls’ blood withdrawal to the world to show others how vampirism can be cured.
Similarly, the happy ending for Cecily in “The Poison Eaters” is to be killed and buried with her sisters.
My favorite stories in the collection were the eponymous “The Poison Eaters” and “The Dog King” both of which were set in a medieval alternate universe where kings scheme and murder using children with supernatural abilities. The theme of a governing body using children to fight its battles resonates in my own novel.
I thought this collection had many strengths. Overall, the short stories were well executed. I was interested in these characters’ lives, and I felt a sense of resolution when their stories ended. I think Black’s collection is a good model for how to create and convey the strangeness of fantasy worlds within the confines of the short story format. Each story is tied up succinctly, but the reader gets the sense that the stories never really end; instead the author just shifts focus within the fantasy world. In The Poison Eaters, “The Night Market,” “The Coat of Stars,” “Going Ironside,” and “The Land of Heart’s Desire” are separate stories with different characters, but they could all take place within the same fantasy world where faeries live just beneath the hill.
There were a few things I disliked about the collection. I still had a hard time empathizing with all of Black’s strung-out, delinquent teen characters who try to drown their sorrows in booze and sex. However, this probably has more to do with my personal aversion to the runaway teen stereotype, rather than Black’s skill at creating characters. Also, the copy editing in my edition was poorly done. There were several incidences where I was completely thrown out the story because the main character’s name changed for several paragraphs in the middle of a page before returning to the original name. Also, there were blatant typos and grammatical errors. Having spent a lot of time as a copy editor and a writing tutor, I know those kinds of errors are the most obvious and the most easily fixed. In that respect, I was disappointed with the unfinished quality of my edition, but I still enjoyed Black’s storytelling.