Holly Black on Faerie riddles and family loyalty

Books

Few YA series have garnered the level of devotion and praise achieved by Holly Black’s Folk of the Air series (FOTA), which followed Jude Duarte and her battle for power in Faerie. It’s no surprise that Black’s massive fan base rejoiced when the author released a spinoff duology, the Novels of Elfhame. Picking up right after the events of the first book, The Stolen Heir, The Prisoner’s Throne finds Suren, now queen of the Court of Teeth, and Oak Greenbriar, Jude’s brother and heir to the crown of Elfhame, on shifting soil, unsure of themselves and of each other.

While the first novel primarily followed Suren’s point of view, this time we get to be inside of Oak’s head. What was making this narrative switch like? Between the two characters, was one more challenging to write than the other?

It was definitely easier to write Oak’s point of view because I had made so many decisions in The Stolen Heir about his past and personality. It was hard to give both protagonists space, though. Even though we’re no longer in Suren’s point of view, we want to see how things play out for her. And there were some things about Oak’s past and point of view and certainly his powers that I needed to make more granular.

Did you have this spinoff in mind while you were writing any part of FOTA? If so, did planning for a spinoff impact the writing process of FOTA?

When I got to Queen of Nothing, I realized I wanted to write about Oak and Suren at some point in the future. I was intrigued by the way that Wren’s story both paralleled and contrasted with Jude’s. And I was interested in how much Jude sacrificed to make Oak’s life less traumatic than her own—and how despite all that, it still WAS traumatic. I wondered what it would be like to be Oak, doubly burdened by the trauma as well as the understanding that being “fine” was the only way to repay his family for what they’d done for him. I don’t think knowing that I wanted to revisit those characters changed the course of anything in the Folk of the Air books, but perhaps I did think of them a little more because of it.

What’s it been like to balance the telling of a brand new story alongside the incorporation of familiar, pre-existing elements from FOTA?

One of the reasons I wanted to start the duology with The Stolen Heir, and write from Wren’s point of view, was to give readers a chance to get to know Wren and Oak outside the characters they already have a connection with—Jude and Cardan in particular. I knew that we’d see people we knew from Elfhame both in the second book and in Oak’s memories. I hope that spending time getting to know Wren allows readers to care about everyone a lot in The Prisoner’s Throne.

One of the hardest things about having so many well-known characters in The Prisoner’s Throne is that they all needed to have room to be the clever and capable people we know them to be—which meant I needed to throw a lot of problems at them.

We meet Oak as a rambunctious but earnest child in the first series. Now, eight years later, he’s a teenager, scheming and wallowing and defying expectations in his own right. Was it difficult to transition to writing him as a teen? 

It was far more difficult than I expected to figure out who Oak was when he was older. I wanted him to have some of the chaos and whimsy of his younger self, but also to be a complicated, charming person who nonetheless reflected the violence into which he was born. I rewrote him in The Stolen Heir so many times that I am not sure anyone but me saw the final version, but now I can’t imagine him any other way.

A central theme of The Prisoner’s Throne is family: How much loyalty do we owe family? Who counts as family? And what is the role of violence in making or breaking a family? So—hypothetically, if one of your family members wronged another, could you still consider them a part of your family?

My grandmother used to say to me that the most important thing was that I never lie to her. Even if I did something terrible. Even if I murdered someone. That she would do whatever she needed to do to keep me safe, even if I was in the wrong—but I just couldn’t lie. I put that speech into a book at some point because it was so memorable to me. Honestly, it made me feel really loved. It’s definitely not how everyone looks at family and loyalty and values.

There are ways that members of my family—and everyone’s family—have wronged one another. We’re not perfect. I’ve wronged people. But there are also lines that if someone in my family crossed, I wouldn’t consider them family anymore. Despite my grandmother’s speech, I am sure that would have been true for her too. It’s so interesting in fiction to figure out just where that line is for each character.

One of the most enjoyable elements of your work is the riddles and tricks that the Fae tell each other. Do you have a favorite riddle that you’ve written?

Thank you! My favorite riddle—although not original to me—is one I used in Tithe: “What belongs to you, but others use it more than you do?” It’s a useful thing to write in a book, since the answer is, of course, your name.

In both the Folk of the Air and the Novels of Elfhame series, our protagonists begin as enemies and gradually warm up to each other. A famous quote from Cardan is “I have heard that for mortals, the feeling of falling in love is very like the feeling of fear.” What would you say is the secret to a compelling enemies-to-lovers romance?

I think there’s a narratively significant difference between enemies and people who don’t trust one another or who are even on opposite sides of a conflict. To me, the intensity of the personal hatred is what makes the enemies-to-lovers progression so compelling—along with, ideally, the surprise. We sort characters into particular roles in stories and that allows us to not necessarily consider a character to be a romantic possibility until, suddenly, they are. But to me, enemies to lovers is all about how an intensity of feeling blurs lines—and often obscures more complicated feelings, often about oneself as much as about the other person.

Although you’ve explored a multitude of fantastical concepts across your novels, Faerie is a lore you return to again and again, to the great delight of your readers. Will there be more novels or projects set in this realm in the future?

There will definitely be one more Elfhame novel—and what it’s about will be clear after getting to the end of The Prisoner’s Throne. After that, I’m less sure of the specifics, but I know there will be future books set in Faerie.

If you lived in Faerie, what kind of creature would you be, and why? Non-human answers only!

Possibly a phooka. I like the idea of transforming into different creatures and playing tricks on people. And the possibility of having horns.

Photo of Holly Black by Sharona Jacobs.

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