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She thought of the faeries she had known when she was a child – impish, quick things – no mention of wars or magical arrows or enemies, certainly no lies, no deception. The man bleeding in the dirt beside her told her how wrong her perceptions of Faery had been.

I was a little wary about reading this book. The cover carries a single word rave from Michael Moorcock, ‘Superb’, and after my last brush with the kind of books that warrant his approval, I was afraid my favourite fantasy author had steered me wrong once again.

As it happens this book is a surprising update of Celtic mythology in a modern setting, with no shrinking away from sexual undertones and the capriciousness of ‘the Fae’. In fact the darker tone of this book reminded me of Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies, which includes the following passage (and for the purposes of this review, read for ‘elves’, ‘fairies’) –

Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.

Sixteen-year old Kaye gets that most people think she’s a weird kid. After all, she’s lived a pretty weird life. She never knew her father, as she is the product of her mother’s promiscuous past as a rock chick groupie. Her Asian features combined with bright blond hair tends to turn heads wherever she goes. Also she dropped out of school a few years ago so she could work in a Chinese takeaway to help her failed musician mother pay their bills. Oh and when she was a kid, she was visited by faeries.

When the latest in a long line of crummy boyfriends assaults her mother, Kaye’s grandmother agrees to let them stay until they can find somewhere else to live. During the day Kaye pretends to go to school and hangs out with friends she has not seen in years. The faces from her childhood are not only older now, but carry the glazed expression of drink that she has grown familiar with from life on the road with her mother. Still they are the only friends she has. Kaye is used to living with less.

She goes out one night with her childhood friend Janet and a group of boys to hang out at an abandoned fair-ground. There Kenny, Janet’s boyfriend, suddenly becomes very forward with Kaye. Alarmed, she runs out into the night despite a raging storm. On her way home she comes upon a man dressed like a knight in black armour, lying in the mud with an iron-tipped arrow piercing his chest. He reveals to her that he is a faerie indentured into the service of the Queen of the Unseelie Court. When Kaye tricks him into revealing his true name, the two are bound together for better or worse. She soon discovers not only has she lived a weird life, but she herself is a lot weirder than anyone could have imagined.

While this book could easily be seen as yet another example of the ‘dark romance’ genre that is flooding the market now thanks to the success of Twilight and copycat novels, Holly Black infuses her mythic tale with a fantastical vision of sexuality more akin to novels by Clive Barker, or Poppy Z. Brite.

I mean this as a compliment. In transporting this tale of changelings, warring faerie courts and conniving monarchs to a modern setting, Black retains much of the sexually charged content of the original fairy tales. In particular the character of Nephamael, whose clothing is entwined with thorns, is an unabashed representation of gay S&M themes.

This is actually the first book in a new series of novels by Black, who also wrote The Spiderwick Chronicles for children. While this book does not shy away from portraying the difficulties faced by its teenage characters in these disaffected times – escaping into alcohol, sex and even comic books to avoid ‘real life’ – I would not recommend it for readers under sixteen.

I love the parallel corruption of Kaye’s fantasy world as a dark reflection of the adult world she is entering into. As a metaphor for the loss of innocence that comes after childhood, Tithe is well-paced and relatable.

The air became cold, then bitter, but he kept up his painful pace, avoiding the roads wherever possible, though they would have been easier to walk than the ploughed and seeded ground. This caution proved well founded at one point when two police vehicles, book-ending a black limousine, slid all but silently down a road he had a minute ago crossed. He had no evidence whatsoever for the feeling that seized him as the cars passed by, but he sensed more than strongly that the limo’s passenger was Decker, the good doctor, still in pursuit of understanding.

When I was ten years old Clive Barker’s Nightbreed was released in cinemas. I have never seen this movie, but I can still remember how fascinated I was with the press stills released to magazines and newspapers at the time. They featured grotesque creatures, bulbous limbs and scarred faces, the stuff of nightmares. I was too young to see the film and so desperately wanted to, wanted to find out what these creatures inhabiting an underworld kingdom of Barker’s invention called Midian were. Cabal is the book that inspired the film Nightbreed. I have always thought the film had a better title, a more intriguing hook. Just what are the Nightbreed?

Boone is a young man tortured by visions of violence and death. He is a paranoid schizophrenic, who has finally achieved a kind of peace, leaving the days of endless nightmares and self-harm behind him. All thanks to Lori, a beautiful and understanding young woman, whose patience has given him hope of a life he can share with someone else. Until that is his therapist, Decker, shows him a collection of horrific photographs and tells him that he is in fact a killer.

Under hypnosis Boone apparently began to speak about things and events that only the killer of these people could have known. Decker offers to help him uncover his memories and prepare his defence. Horrified at what he has done, Boone cuts off contact from Lori and attempts to take his own life. He survives and winds up in hospital, where he meets a madman named Narcisse. The stranger whispers to him of a place called Midian, where the freaks and rejects of society are welcomed. Boone sets off to find it, pursued by the police for the eleven deaths Decker assures him he caused. After an encounter with some of the strange inhabitants of the underworld city, and a sudden death, Boone finds himself transformed into a new kind of being. When Lori finds him, he has returned from beyond the grave, more beast than man, a member of the Nightbreed. She has problems of her own though. The police are hunting her undead lover and a madman killer called Button Head is on her trail.

I am putting my cards on the table here. I found this book to be a bitter disappointment. Like the worse kinds of disappointments, this is due to Barker raising my expectations to a height, just before they come crashing down. The novel itself has a fascinating subtext relating to the oppression of homosexuality by mainstream society. Midian itself is a place where dualities thrive, male/female, life/death, beauty/horror. What’s more the characterisation of the Nightbreed as freaks is in keeping with the marginalisation of homosexuals, with numerous illustrations by Barker interspersed through the text resembling demonic Rorschach tests. The implication is clear, the tools of reason being used to oppress the most vulnerable members of society.

It’s important to note that up until very recently homosexuality was still considered a mental illness. The Guardian recently ran an article about the antagonistic relationship between the gay community and psychology. As fascinating as this is, I just wish Barker was less obvious in his symbolism and ironically more direct in his language. I found myself in the unusual position of admiring his visual imagination, yet finding the prose dreadfully dull. This could have been Michel Foucault meets The Lord of the Rings! Instead it is a thin novel stuffed with grotesque violence and underwhelming sex.

I am very sorry this was the case.

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