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.I have to admit my bias: I’ve only read three – well, four now – of Holly Black’s books, but I am a huge fan of her writing. From what I’ve seen on Goodreads, it’s not a universal opinion, but I’m thoroughly enchanted by her style. Her words have this incredible ability to set a mood, to create scenes so vividly that I can see them in my head, and they’re magical. Her writing is like a holophonor.
Yeah, that happens every time I read a Holly Black book.
There are scenes I remember of Tithe quite vividly, and they’re lovely. Tithe itself has more of a feeling, more of a mood in my memories, and has made more of an impression on me than any ten of the other blandanormal romances I’ve read lately. Which is why it’s really sad for me to have to say that atmosphere and a lyrical style are pretty much the only things Tithe has strongly in its favor.
Tithe has a couple of major problems, the first of which being that very little besides Kaye gets developed. While I don’t expect Black to flesh out every single character that gets a name, I do expect to know more about characters who a) figure pretty heavily into the plot, and b) are important to Kaye herself, and whose actions or ultimate fates have an emotional impact on her. As such, the lack of development of characters like Janet, Gristle, Lootie, and Spike confuse the Hell out of me.
Take the faeries, for instance – until they show up to bring Kaye into their scheme, we see absolutely nothing of them. Kaye mentions them – at first in a passing way that led me to believe that they were brought up only to establish that she has always had contact with faeries – but then they’re given names and identities, and Kaye tries to contact them in increasingly desperate ways as she is drawn further into the world of the fae. Black builds them up as significant characters and important allies that Kaye will need to guide her in her journey, and then doesn’t deliver. It takes a while to even meet these characters, and once we do, they do almost nothing to endear themselves to the reader. One of the trio is dead, and neither of the others talk or takes part in the action a whole lot. They show very little affection towards Kaye, and after one scene in which they make a big reveal and partially set up the story’s conflict, they completely disappear for the bulk of it, They aren’t guides, they aren’t really allies, they’re barely even present at all.
Adding to the issue is the fact that much of the plot hinges on Kaye’s relationship with these faeries; she agrees to help them, she trusts them, because they used to be friends. When they betray her, it’s shocking to Kaye because they used to be so close. But we never get a feel for this relationship, and thus we never feel any connection to these characters, because we almost never see them interact. It feels like part of the book is missing, almost, and the story is worse off for it. It’s not enough for things to just mean something to Kaye. If we’d gotten, say, even just a few more flashbacks of Kaye’s time with the faeries from her perspective, we would have been better able to relate to Kaye as she faces the reality of these figures that were so important to her in her happy childhood. It could have meant something to us. But we don’t; all we get is Kaye’s vague but frequent description of these faeries as “friends”, so we don’t know who they are or what to expect, and thus don’t feel things the way we should as they play their roles in the story.
Janet, at least, appears, and has some relationship-establishing scenes with Kaye, but that relationship is not given nearly enough depth or emotional weight to justify any kind of emotional reaction from the reader to Janet’s ultimate fate. She’s a fairly one-note character, and she and Kaye may as well have been casual acquaintances (rather than childhood friends) for all the regard Kaye seemed to show her. It’s fine if she’s just there to cause conflict, I suppose, but really, to justify the kind of melt-down Kaye has to her fate, she should have at least seemed to like her a little more.
What’s worse is Kaye’s relationship with Designated Love Interest Roiban. It’s not that I didn’t believe they had feelings for each other – Black very vividly and believably captured that – it’s just that i never understood why. We’re never given a good reason. Kaye and Roiban meet, and sure, she saves him, but I mean, as far as rescues go, it’s pretty unspectacular. She doesn’t battle off his attackers, she doesn’t rescue him from a burning building, or spend days nursing him back to health; she finds him in a forest, pulls out the arrow that’s struck him down, binds his wounds, and then calls him a ride home. They don’t even talk that much, and yet, all of the sudden, they can’t stop thinking about each other? It’s almost as though Kaye is aware that Roiban’s her love interest: she knows nothing about him except that he’s a faery, and that’s a dubious sign at best; she has no guarantee that they’ll meet again soon, or that it wasn’t some strange hallucination, and yet she gushes to her friend that she’s “met someone”. Someone who wasn’t particularly kind or smart or sweet or anything really, except for good-looking. But she’s suddenly in love?
Roiban’s interest in Kaye is even more mind-boggling. His interaction with her is very limited, he doesn’t know anything about her, again, she’s not particularly anything while she’s around him, and yet he can’t stop thinking about her. I suppose in their second meeting Kaye shows a little bit more personality, but it seems more like the sort of thing that would legitimately infuriate his character, not draw him deeper under her spell. But those two meetings are all it takes for Roiban to be literally willing to give his life for her. Attraction I can understand, but immediate, sacrificial devotion? Why? There’s no good reason.
Even as they spend more time together towards the close of the book, I still didn’t feel like they got to know one another. I guess at that point I could understand Kaye’s crush – after all, Roiban is ~gorgeous~ and ~tortured~ and, most importantly, self-sacrificingly devoted to her, but his interest in Kaye continues to feel plot-mandated. She doesn’t really do anything particularly clever or brave until the very end, for the first day or so he’s convinced that she’s been using him – which she doesn’t bother to properly clear up until after he’s already forgiven her for no good reason – she drags him around to help her clean up the mess that she made in the first place, and he just wags his tail and goes along with it, because, IDK, she’s the heroine.
TL;DR I don’t buy the romance.
The second big problem with Tithe is its loose relationship with sensible, understandable motivation. There were several times when Kaye’s actions felt more necessary to move the plot along than, y’know, logical – like when she learns that she’s a faery. She’s told that the glamour that makes her appear human is stronger than it should be, stronger than most faeries can manage. She’s agreed to help her faery friends, and knows that they need her to remain hidden in this glamour for their overall plan to work. But most obvious of all, she knows that if she removes the glamour, she will no longer look human. So what does she do? She promptly goes out and manically, desperately, rips the glamour off.
I get why it was happened, in a big-picture sense; it was just an incredibly stupid move, and it’s tough to buy someone doing something so dumb. Then again, Kaye’s decisions throughout the book were pretty questionable. I mean, not only did she risk exposing herself and ruining the Big Plan simply to satisfy her curiosity, but she later opted to attend a rave instead of searching for a way to rescue the human friend she’d left trapped in Faery. These are things seriously, distractingly at odds with her established character and motivation, and yet they still occur, simply to further the plot. And speaking of which…
The plot is oddly structured, with a climax and conflict resolution in the middle of the book that ends up setting up another conflict to fill out the remainder. I’m not necessarily opposed to the structure itself – both conflicts and villains were interesting, and the transition from one to another wasn’t even all that jarring – but when the second conflict starts trying to insist that it was the result of an intricate, carefully calculated, story-long gambit that was intended to resolve the first conflict, I get a little skeptical. Mostly because it’s a total ass-pull. This revelation comes almost completely out of nowhere, right at the end, and the incredibly vague, incredibly superficial “hints’ spread throughout the latter half of the story are so, well, incredibly vague and superficial that the heroine has to explain the whole damn thing to us from the beginning, even though she really has no legitimate way of knowing as much about the plot and the supposed “motivations” for it as she does.
The gambit itself is as confusing and improbable as its method of reveal – I still don’t get why the Queen of the Seelie court wanted to get rid of the Queen of the Unseelie court, what she would gain by it, why she needed to involve Kaye specifically, or if Black was trying to imply that Kaye’s whole life situation had been “part of the plan” all along. If that’s true, the improbability level reaches EPIC scale. The sad thing is, there very well could have been a good reason for the Queen’s elaborate plan, but it just wasn’t communicated the way it should have been.
It’s a damn shame, too, because I really enjoyed the world and characters Black created here. Kaye is a compelling protagonist, because she is so very flawed and damaged. The best part is that, thanks to Black’s writing, she’s damaged in very real, non-attention-whore-y ways. I’ve mentioned before how irritating it is to read about protagonists who are *supposed* to be emotionally scarred and troubled, and don’t do anything more “damaged” than whine about it. Kaye’s issues, on the other hand, show through in her actions and thoughts and words, and you never have to be told that she’s pretty fucked up. She makes mistakes, she does stupid things (the teenager things, not the inexcusably dumb plot-required things), and she acts like a normal teenager. She drinks, she swears, she lies, she steals and parties with her friends. She’s not a shining role model, but the key point here is that she’s not meant to. Lest we forget, she’s fucked up. Between that, her impoverished background, and her unstable home life, I found Kay and her life to be a novel relief from the usual suburb-dwelling, upper-middle-class, white, straight-laced, straight-A heroines that populate this genre.
What’s more, Black didn’t coddle Kaye. She wasn’t afraid to let her heroine be less than perfect in action, as well as in personality. Despite the problems I had with the plot, I have to admit, I liked that most of the second conflict came about as a result of Kaye’s naive actions. She made a huge mistake, and there were serious consequences for it, not only for herself, but for others as well. Again, this is a nice break from the norm.
For all Kaye’s fucked-upness, though, I’d have to dub her buddy Corny as “Most Unexpected Paranormal Romance Character Ever”. Here’s this guy who’s physically unattractive (gasp!) and angry and daydreaming about shooting random people, and he becomes the heroine’s sidekick? And not only that, but he gets involved in a plot-relevant, emotionally and physically abusive relationship? Despite it being mostly an excuse to keep Kaye invested in the fate of the Unseelie court for the latter half of the story, I thought Black actually played this well enough to make it feel as though Corny got something of a character arc, too. That was pretty dark shit, though. Did not see that coming.
Black’s fae world had a wonderful feeling of unreality to it, as well. The faeries of her Unseelie Court are dark and twisted, violent and scary, and even the “good” ones have an – I guess we’ll call it “racist” – edge to them in their complete disregard for human life that takes the glittering, Disney-fied shine off them. These are gritty street faeries, who thrive in unexpected places – beneath the hills of a cemetery, in the polluted waters of a runoff stream beside the highway – and I loved that. In Black’s world, these very elemental, earthy creatures of legend aren’t confined to the country or the forest; they’re everywhere.
When it comes right down to it, I’m really, honestly enjoyed Tithe. Black’s world and characters were unique and memorable, and for me, at least, her writing was magical. And though I’m disappointed that much of the plot doesn’t hold up very well in hindsight, I’m no less a Black fan, nor am I looking any less forward to the next installment of the series.