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
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.