February 5, 2013

Review: Tithe by Holly Black

Tithe by Holly Black
Published: 2003, Simon & Schuster (Originally 2002)
Series: The Modern Faerie Tales, #1
Genre: Young Adult Urban Fantasy, Retelling
Source: Library book

Sixteen-year-old Kaye is a modern nomad. Fierce and independent, she travels from city to city with her mother's rock band until an ominous attack forces the sixteen-year-old back to her childhood home. There, amid the industrial, blue-collar New Jersey backdrop, Kaye soon finds herself an unwilling pawn in an ancient power struggle between two rival faerie kingdoms -- a struggle that could very well mean her death. 

Newcomer Holly Black's enormously powerful voice weaves teen angst, riveting romance, and capriciously diabolical faerie folk into an enthralling, engaging, altogether original reading experience. (Goodreads)

I'm a bit surprised by just how much I ended up enjoying Holly Black's Tithe. Although I cannot say for certain, I vaguely recall reading Tithe back when it was released. I don't remember my thoughts on it (although it would have left some impression if I loved it), but without any memories of my first reading experience I was able to completely rediscover the well-crafted story of a teen girl's discovery of the hidden faerie realm.

Tithe's biggest strength lies in its imagining of a gritty, everyday world juxtaposed with a hidden faerie culture. The known world that protagonist Kaye lives in already has its fair share of difficulties. She moves around with her mother as her mother plays in various bands. Kaye's father has not only never been part of the picture, but Kaye's never even met him. She dropped out of school a while ago to earn some money and help take care of her mother. When they go to live with her grandmother in New Jersey, they are not going to a nicer part. Black frequently describes the run-down state of the area, from the stream clogged up with broken glass to the abandoned bits of boardwalk to the trailer park of her friend Janet. Nothing's necessarily wrong with Kaye's current situation in life, but it's clearly not ideal.

The faerie world is just as detailed as Black's descriptions of the human one. Black appears to be well-versed in all sorts of faerie lore. The faeries and the world they inhabit comprise both one's best dreams and one's worst nightmares. Wherever beauty is, danger lurks nearby. Even though Kaye (and readers) are quickly told of the differences between the (bad) Unseelie Court and the (good) Seelie Court, nothing is quite so black and white. Roiben, the champion of the Unseelie queen, best represents the fluidity of the faerie world
although born to the Seelie Court, he must fight for the Unseelie queen. Little details, such as the faeries' aversion to iron, stories about changelings, and even the human entrances to the fairy courts, just made the world Black created seem so real.

Although Tithe is mainly told through Kaye's perspective, certain parts of the novel focus on Roiben and on Corny, the older brother of Kaye's friend Janet. Through these three perspectives, readers are able to get a glimpse into the different ways that the human and faerie worlds combine. Not only are the lines physically and geographically blurred between the two worlds, but the characters themselves traverse these boundaries frequently. Amidst this hidden world of wonders and enchantment, however, the consequences are both real and deadly. Tithe does not present even a remotely light-hearted portrait of the faerie realm.

Kaye is a wonderful protagonist. Her life with her mother has forced Kaye to mature quickly, and it has also caused Kaye to distance herself from those who could be her friends. Throughout the ups and downs of her life thus far, she remains level-headed, intelligent, and loyal. Her relationships with both Roiben and Corny are well-done and allow different aspects of Kaye's character to unfold.

Instead of a more traditional Janet as the savior and Tam Lin as the victim story, Kaye and Roiben's roles are constantly changing. Roiben may be the character under the enchantment of the faerie queen, but it is Kaye who fulfills the role of the sacrifice. Both save each other's lives many times, which makes their relationship stronger and more realistic. The constant changing of  Kaye and Roiben's roles kept me pleasantly guessing.

I'll admit that I'm not too familiar with faerie lore in general. I got the sense while reading Tithe, however, that Black is drawing upon many different tales and traditions in the creation of her story. While "Tam Lin" never really delves any more into faerie lore than through the description of our titular hero's curse, here there are changelings, pixies, kelpies, and Seelie and Unseelie courts. Black really brings the faerie realm to life. Indeed, the "Tam Lin" story simply appears to be one story Black uses to springboard into her The Modern Faerie Tales series, especially considering the fact that the typical "Tam Lin" conclusion occurs only two-thirds of the way in Tithe

With all that in mind, how do I think that Tithe fared? I really enjoyed Black's edgy and modern take on faerie lore. Elements of the "Tam Lin" ballad are there, but they serve to supplement a bigger tale about faerie culture and the role that humans play within it, so this may not be the best story for those looking for a story with deep emphasis on the "Tam Lin" tale. At this point, I'd like to do further reading into other faerie ballads and tales that inspired Black's story, so that I could piece together all the different elements in Tithe.
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. If not for GoodReads, reading the same book twice could totally happen to me. I read so much and forget so easily. I have this huge, unreasonable fear of faeries that stops me from reading these books, but I know how wonderful Holly Black's writing is, so I'm more than intrigued. I'll probably gather up my courage and give it a try at some point.
    Great review!

    1. I know! I'm so glad now that I have a Goodreads account. And you should! Some of the faerie lore and the faeries themselves are creepy. But they're also layered and so well done. And this is a super fast read. I do hope you're able to read it at some point, Maja!

  2. I feel like I read this a long time ago and don't quite remember it, although I do remember really enjoying it. I'm glad you liked it too, Amanda, and your review has re-jogged my memory of this one. I think I skipped the second book in the series, but the third one was fantastic. (I think the second was about different characters, maybe?) Anyway, I can't wait to see what you think of the rest of the books! :)

    1. haha twins! :) I do want to read the whole series...eventually. Just too many books to read, as usual. But I'll get there!

  3. Your Tam Lin invasion is pretty cool, Amanda. I was familiar with the ballad/story, though I have never actually read a book based on it until I read Tithe. I really love Holly Black. She reminds me a bit of Melissa Marr, because both show the darker side of faerie, and I LOVE that.

    I actually read all three of Black's books in her Modern Faerie tales series, and though each was memorable, Tithe remains my favorite because I love the story of Kaye and Roiben meeting and falling for each other:)

    1. haha thanks, Heather! Not mine though - just part of an entire blogger event. It's fun so far! And I'm glad to hear you liked all of Black's Modern Faerie Tales. I do want to read the other ones eventually. And yes! I am very much a fan of those two. :)

  4. Nicely written review, Amanda! I love Tinker Bell, and faeries in general is no exception. Faeries are often described as the cute, sparkly creatures, but in this case, I can see that there's also the dark side of it. It's sad, though, that there's only little element of Tam Lin in this book. I was really looking forward to read how the book retells its story, but seeing that it's more focused on faeries, I got a bit disappointed.

    1. Thank you, Rhin! And yeah, this is more that "Tam Lin" and similar fairy stories inspired Black than a retelling. But that's fine. There are still many other faithful "Tam Lin" retellings out there. :)


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