Tithe, by Holly Black
7.5/10, a beautiful and dark story of a girl discovering her identity in the faerie world
I used to be quite devoted to the world of Young Adult fantasy, back when I was a Young Adult–Madeleine L’Engle and Susan Cooper remain favorites–but since I picked them up, the landscape has changed. Faeries, vampires, and werewolves are the big things, driven in part, I’m sure, by the success of “Buffy” and related shows. Holly Black is one of the names I’ve become aware of very recently in this newly vibrant field, and “Tithe” is the first volume in her YA series.
Sixteen-year-old Kaye travels with her rock-star-wannabe mother up and down the East Coast, landing most recently in her grandmother’s house in the Philadelphia area. She’s been familiar with faeries from an early age, small companions with cute names like Spike, Lutie-loo and the Thistlewitch, but she hasn’t seen them in quite a while. They reappear in her new home with some startling news: one of their number has been killed–by a mysterious knight whose life Kaye has just saved.
This conflict is not as simple as it first seems, and Kaye’s role in it only grows more involved as she finds out more about the faerie world. The Unseelie Court, from whence comes the mysterious knight, is an ethereal, sinister place, with horrors and unearthly beauties aglow from Black’s lovely descriptions. Faeries, you see, can be as dark as they are beautiful, and the darker ones gather in the Unseelie Court to torment other unfortunate faeries (though it must be said that the denizens of the Seelie Court do not seem as much gentler as simply more adept at concealing their dark side).
Kaye stumbles through this new world very believably, with all the charm and wonder of any of my favorite YA heroes or heroines. Black’s characters are vivid and enjoyable, especially the faerie, and some of the encounters between Kaye and her mysterious knight are truly a delight to read. The world of faerie, too, is wonderfully imagined, with many nods to all of the discourse of that world: faeries are famously bound by spoken promises, ancient rules, and customs, and Black makes sure that Kaye snags herself more than once on the jagged edges of that rough world.
The story itself seems slightly rough in parts, specifically the pacing. Events come to climax too quickly, or arise before the reader has a chance to process what was happening. There are almost two books here: one that happens before Kaye discovers the Unseelie Court, and one after. Following the story is not a problem, but I didn’t feel as much tension as I thought it deserved, because it kept getting sidetracked. Nonetheless, this is a world I would be happy to revisit, and fortunately, Black has written two more books: “Valiant,” and the recently-released “Ironside,” which continues Kaye’s story.
I had the good pleasure of attending a book signing in which Holly Black and her friend and fellow author Cassandra Clare signed books and gave a very enjoyable presentation. Black’s dissection of urban fantasy and the relationship back to old fairy tales was particularly interesting. Clearly, she not only knows what she’s doing, but she has a sense of history and literature. She also signs with a great quotation, which I have yet to figure out how to do consistently. Even if you can’t get it signed, I still recommend picking up her book. It’s a fun, quick read, and if you haven’t read YA fantasy since “A Swiftly Tilting Planet,” it’s unlike anything you’ve read before.