Holly Black’s Tithe, the first novel in her Modern Faerie Tale series, leaves an impression, but fails to completely enchant because of flat characterization and an incomplete origin story.
The novel’s protagonist, Kaye, lives a nomadic lifestyle with her musician mother, Ellen. After her mother is nearly stabbed by a band mate, the pair moves back to the New Jersey coast to live with Kaye’s grandmother. Returning to the place where she spent her childhood, Kaye is reunited with many old friends—some human, some, as it turns out, faerie. She spends her time smoking, drinking, and encouraging the infatuation of her friend Janet’s boyfriend, Kenny.
One night, Kaye stumbles across the injured Roiben, a knight of the Unseelie court. She saves his life, and in return he tells her the one thing that holds power over him—his true name. Then Kaye learns that her imaginary friends from childhood are actually faeries and she is a pixie changeling who was brought to Ironside (the human world) and swapped for a human child at birth. Now the faeries need her to pretend to be human for the upcoming tithe, a faerie ritual. If her deception succeeds, the ritual will fail and the faerie folk will be free from fealty to the Dark and Light Faerie courts for seven years. Kaye agrees to help her friends, but unbeknownst to her, the faeries plot to sacrifice her life. Luckily, Roiben saves Kaye from the ritual. Now on the run and watching the freed faeries wreak havoc in Ironside, Kaye and Roiben have to work together to discover the mastermind behind the failed ritual. Only then can they restore order to both worlds.
The strength of Black’s novel can be found in her dark, sensuous–almost fetishist– descriptions of the faerie world. Black’s faeries are not the cute, whimsical sprites from Disney movies (at least not all of them). Instead, the creatures from the faerie courts are a corrupt, bloodthirsty group who delight in overindulging in all the physical pleasures our world has to offer. Her depiction of the bacchanalia of the Unseelie court was as riveting as it was disturbing.
One caveat to this is that I didn’t feel the elements of the faerie world were integrated into the human world as seamlessly as they could have been. Black’s blending of the faerie and human worlds felt clumsy and haphazard—with kelpies circling the boardwalk like sharks and faerie knights stumbling out of the woods with no explanation.
While the reader appreciates Black’s scene setting, it is difficult to admire the story’s protagonist. Kaye’s character is an amalgamation of all that is wrong with teenage society. She is the product of an unstable, unhealthy home life. She smokes, drinks, parties—even drops out of high school—despite being given the rare opportunity to start over in New Jersey. She isn’t a loyal or dependable friend; she does nothing to discourage the advances of Janet’s boyfriend, she fails to warn Janet about the dangerous faeries, and she abandons Janet’s brother, Corny, in the faerie hill. Her actions hurt the people around her, but she takes no responsibility.
Another deficit in Black’s storytelling, in my opinion, is her inconsistent point of view. At the beginning of the novel there was a brief switch in the third person limited point of view from Kaye to Corny. This jarring switch seems to serve no other purpose than to introduce Corny’s character and make the reader distrust the narrator. From that point on, it didn’t feel like it was Kaye’s story, and I found Corny’s presence distracting. Later, Black’s narrator lapses again in the scene before the tithe where Kaye is under the influence and Roiben is looking after her.
The reader keeps waiting for an explanation of Kaye’s faerie origins, but instead has to witness the exploration of Kaye and Roiben’s strange relationship. Black’s attempts to make the conversations between Kaye and Roiben spark with chemistry fail. Instead, the reader is forced to sift through disjointed arguments and convoluted half-conversations that disguise the characters’ true meaning like a glamour. The pace of their love story was too fast, especially given the violent, life-threatening events that kept throwing them together. Roiben’s desire for Kaye when they first meet seems false because she is wearing her human disguise. How can he be attracted to her when he can’t see her true form? I found it hard to believe they had any kind of connection, even a very base physical attraction. In fact, I was confused and distracted by the number of times men, even strangers, were physically attracted to the protagonist. Perhaps this confusion stems from the fact that Kaye’s pixie powers are never fully explained.
For this reader, Tithe was an incomplete faerie tale. The story’s climactic “twist” was always the most obvious plot choice. Of course the Dark faerie knight Nephamael was secretly serving the Dark faerie queen in order to gain control of the thrown for himself. Those hoping for an epic battle between the two faerie factions as they struggle to control the throne will be disappointed. In the end, there was no war and no magic, just an iron-roofied drink. The novel’s finale does not do justice to the scope of the story or the characters Black created.
Agree? Disagree? Want to boil me in a vat of acid? Let me know!