Series: Modern Faerie Tales #1
Published: 2004 by Simon Pulse
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult
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Do you ever have one of those books that people have been telling you to read for years and years but just haven’t gotten to yet for no good reason, but then you read it and you love it and you wish you’d read it sooner because you’re totally blown away by how good it is? My sister has been telling me to read Holly Black’s Tithe since it came out (when we were in high school, which by now is ancient history). I finally got around to it this week, and WOW.
The premise is this. Kaye is a high school dropout. Her mother dreams of hitting it big in her band and has moved Kaye around a lot while trying to make it. But it’s pretty clear that no matter how talented her mom is, it just isn’t going to happen. Kaye and her mom move in with her grandma in New Jersey, and that’s when Kaye realizes that the faeries that were her “imaginary friends” growing up are real, and that she’s accidentally gotten herself mixed up in a war between the Seelie and Unseelie courts. It’s a blend between life in a blue-collar Jersey town and the story of Tam Lin, and it’s wonderful.
There are so many things to love about Tithe that I don’t even know where to start.
This is the kind of story where the teenage protagonist isn’t perfect. Kaye smokes. She drinks. She goes out with her friends and flirts with her friend’s boyfriend. Kaye is kind of lost in life, and it shows. She’s really smart, but she has no direction. And we see her grandma and her mom arguing about parenting, because the mom is so permissive and the grandma thinks that more rules and order will help Kaye in life. But Kaye’s mom is also lost in life. And by the time that the parenting argument happens, Kaye is already immersed in fae politics, which means that she’s got her own priorities which have nothing to do with becoming a human adult. And none of the people Kaye hangs out with (e.g. her friend Janet and Janet’s brother Corny) really have solid life plans. They’re still in the process of finding themselves. It felt real and brutally honest, and closer to the experience of a lot of teens than characters who have everything figured out and are “on the right track.”
Now for the fae. Kaye’s love interest is Robien, a fae whom she helps when she comes across him injured in the wood. But Robien is currently a slave to the queen of the Unseelie court, and because she has his true name, he can be forced to do anything she commands, no matter how awful it might be. The fae in Tithe are inhuman, and normal human morality or behavioral rules don’t really apply to them. They steal mortal babies and swap them out with fae children just for funsies. They can be cruel for no other reason than their own amusement, and they see humans as fragile toys that are far too easy to break. And that doesn’t mean that the fae are evil, either. They’re like forces of nature that operate according to their own rules and culture, a careful system of promises and bargains and exchanging of power that holds their society together. And if you’re an outsider, this means that getting involved with the fae is, in general, a really bad idea, because you’ll have no idea how to navigate their society without eating forbidden fruit or becoming someone’s unwitting slave. But they’re beautiful and seductive as well, so you don’t want to look away. Reading about the fae is utterly fascinating, and I couldn’t get enough of them.
Sometimes when you take a modern setting and introduce supernatural or fairy tale elements, the line between modernity and myth can be jarring (e.g. Gena Showalter’s Lords of the Underworld series). But that really wasn’t the case here. The fae are timeless, and can walk in and out of any world with comfort. And following Kae between New Jersey and the faerie courts worked. It felt *right.* The book doesn’t try to make the fae themselves into modern characters, it just introduces them to our world.
I’m a sucker for Tam Lin retellings and interpretations, and Tithe is now one of my all time favorites. Highly recommended.