The Poison Eaters
Because I wanted to read the short story version of Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, I picked up a copy of The Poison Eaters, which contains that story and eleven others.
The germ of “The Coldest Girl in Coldtown” turned out to be way further down the spectrum of moralizing about what it means to be “cold” enough to let the vampire disease get out of hand so you end up biting people and spreading it. The novel is more interestingly ambivalent about good and evil, up to the point where you see why the heroine has to make the choices she does to protect those she loves, including herself.
For fans of Tithe, there’s a Roiben story, and it’s an interesting postlude to his adventures with Kaye. There’s a story about how a high school Latin club tried to stage a Bacchanalian frenzy during the senior Prom. “Virgin” is a sad story that includes a good explanation: “Zachary told me once why the old stories say that mortals who eat faerie food can’t leave Faerie. That’s a bunch of rot, too, but at least there’s some truth in it. You see, they can leave; they just won’t ever be able to find another food they’ll want to eat. Normal food tastes like ashes. So they starve.” In “A Reversal of Fortune,” a poor girl challenges the Devil to an eating contest with the life or death of her dog, who has been struck by a car, in the balance. She cheats, and wins the life of the dog. My favorite story is “The Coat of Stars,” about a Broadway costume designer who tries to win his first love, taken by the fairies, back from their realm.
“Paper Cuts Scissors” is the funniest story, about the library of a man who can let the characters out of books so they meet each other:
“The spine of the book read Pride and Prejudice so Justin was surprised to find Indiana Jones in the text. Apparently, he’d been sleeping his way through all the Jane Austen books and had seduced both Kitty and Lydia Bennett. Justin discovered this fact when Eleanor Tilney from Northanger Abbey showed up to confront Indy with his illegitimate child.”
Later, at a party for all the book characters, we hear a knight say:
“Lo, John Galt hath eaten all the salsa.”
Near the end of the story, the owner of the library tells Justin
“Look, I love spending time with characters from books. I love the strange friendships that spring up, the romances. I don’t want to lose any of them. Did you know that Naruto has become close to Edmond Dantes and a floating skull with glowing red eyes? I couldn’t make that up if I tried! But it’s still fiction. Even if it’s happening in my basement, it’s not real.”
Justin looked at him in disbelief. “But books feel real. Surely they must seem more real to you than anyone. They can hurt you. They can break your heart.”
These stories can break your heart just a little bit. They’re a good warning of how powerful Black’s mature talent, in her later novels, will be.