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Today’s guest is Elizabeth Fitzgerald! Her wonderful fan work has been recognized by the Ditmar Award multiple times: her Earl Grey Editing blog has been nominated for Best Fan Publication in Any Medium three times (including this year, whose finalists were just announced), and she was also a finalist for Best Fan Writer last year. She’s also a reviewer and podcaster at the Skiffy and Fanty Show, one of this year’s Hugo Award nominees for Best Fancast, and a short fiction writer—her story “New Berth” also earned her a 2019 Ditmar Award nomination for Best New Talent!

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Faerie YA and Valentine

Holly Black’s Tithe was one of those books I’d been waiting my whole life to read. I was in my mid-twenties before I came across it, so possibly a little old for its target audience, but that didn’t stop me from devouring it and its sequels in short order. Since then, I’ve read a large number of the faerie YA books inspired by the series, but none of them quite lived up to that first one.

Until Valentine by Jodi McAlister was published in 2017. This is a book set in an Australian town and is about four teenagers who are born on Valentine’s Day. One by one, they begin to go missing as the Unseelie fae try to hunt down which of them is Seelie royalty swapped at birth.

As I’ll be discussing the series in some detail, I highly recommend reading it first if you care about spoilers.

While Tithe and Valentine share some similarities, under the surface they are doing very different things. Where Tithe set the tone for the subgenre, Valentine attempts to subvert what are by now some very well-established conventions.

One thing they share in common is the way they show how dangerous the world can be for women. The familiar can’t always be trusted—not only do faeries deceive with their glamours and charms, but mortals also have their own unpleasant secrets. Violence can come from a face you trust. You don’t always have to be wandering through the forest alone to risk abduction when a crowded dance party works just as well. Food and drink can’t be trusted not to leave you in thrall.

But there remains a seductive appeal. This is the same appeal that Twilight and many other paranormal romances tap into, where the line between threat, protector and love interest is a little bit ambiguous. This is also where Valentine diverges somewhat. While the book is an enemies-to-lovers story, as is usually the case with faerie YA, it sets aside the deadly opponents angle in favour of a pettier you-drive-me-up-the-wall vibe. This allows it to side-step some of the more toxic relationship tropes and puts the romantic relationship on more even footing. It’s not a book where Stockholm syndrome is a concern (although the series touches on that later, using side characters to explore and undermine this trope). Finn still does his best to protect Pearl, but has some difficulty as he struggles to adjust to a new view of the faerie-inhabited world and his place in it. Pearl’s headstrong and stubborn nature doesn’t make it any easier; she’s not interested in being protected, instead doing her best to protect Finn in return, along with the other people she cares about.

Valentine Cover Ironheart Cover Misrule Cover

Which brings me to one of the things I loved most about Valentine. As with many YA books, those in the paranormal subgenre tend to privilege romantic relationships above all others. While Pearl’s relationship with Finn remains central to the story, it’s far from the only important thing to her. Instead, it’s her best friend Phil that she will move heaven and earth for. What makes this especially interesting is that Phil doesn’t act as a sidekick to Pearl, who does her best to make sure Phil doesn’t find out what’s going on and is thus protected. This leads to its own problems as Phil grows steadily more angry about being deceived and ignored. Thus, the relationship has its own arc instead of being flattened out by the romance. And Pearl is very conscious that narrowing down her life to just her relationship with Finn is not something that could ever satisfy her—a view I found refreshingly feminist.

Another thing that the series share in common is the inclusion of queer relationships. Tithe was one of the few books I’d read at the time that included a gay character—a trend that doesn’t seem to have been picked up by many of the books that followed. Nor did it end well for the character in question, who ends up in an extremely toxic relationship with an Unseelie fae before he is rescued (though I suppose I should be heartened by the fact that he wasn’t killed off). Valentine shows how things have progressed in the time since Tithe was published, allowing Pearl’s sister to develop a healthy lesbian relationship in the background of the series.

It also takes diversity a step further by including several non-white characters. Most notably, the golden boy of the town is an Aboriginal guy called Cardie. He’s a genuinely lovely guy who is quick to help out Pearl whenever she needs it. When the series begins, he’s Pearl’s nominal crush, though she comes to realise he’s not where her heart truly lies. As the series progresses, he comes to act as the moral compass, advocating for compassionate but sensible action and by calling Pearl out on some questionable choices. As McAlister has noted at some of her author events, this idea of an Aboriginal boy as the golden boy of a rural Australian town is perhaps the biggest piece of fantasy in the book, given Australia’s history of racism. McAlister also treats him respectfully by not positioning him as a Mystic Native Guide to Pearl or by tragically killing him off (a real risk, given the body count of the series).

So, while I continue to adore faerie YA, I hope that Valentine will pave the way for more stories in this sub-genre that include consent, diversity and healthy relationships.

Elizabeth Fitzgerald Photo Elizabeth Fitzgerald is a freelance editor and owner of Earl Grey Editing. She also writes reviews and podcasts for the Skiffy and Fanty Show. Her fiction has appeared in Next and Mother of Invention, among other publications.  She lives in Canberra, Australia. An unabashed roleplayer and reader of romance, her weaknesses are books, loose-leaf tea and silly dogs. She tweets @elizabeth_fitz