Tithe by Holly Black

“It was one thing to believe in faeries; it was totally another thing if you weren’t allowed to even have a choice about it. If they could just walk into your normal life, then they were a part of normal life, and she could no longer separate the unreal world from the real one.”

Holly Black writes the best modern faeries tales.
First published in 2002 Tithe is Holly Black’s debut novel. While Black’s storytelling has certainly come a long way since her Modern Faerie Tales days, I have a soft spot for this series. I first read Tithe back in 2007 when I was 11 and it completely blew my mind. While I now recognize that its plot, language, and secondary characters could have been more complex, I still find that it makes for an engrossing read. Black has definitely honed her writing skills since writing this, and if we compare Tithe to her Folk of the Air trilogy, well it does seem a bit less ‘sophisticated’…but maybe that’s the reason why I like it so much. It has this late 90s/early 2000s grunge aesthetic that works really well with the faerie world Black has created. Black’s faeries are beautiful, cunning, and cruel, not to be messed with, and her lead character, Kaye, is delightfully gritty.

The narrative is fairly fast-paced. After spending the last years on the road, sixteen-year-old Kaye and her mum, who is in a punk-rock band, return to her grandmother’s home in New Jersey. Here Kaye reconnects with her childhood BFF Janet and, not fully aware of what she’s doing, ends up casting a spell on her boyfriend. Freaked out by her own actions Kaye runs off and finds herself coming face-to-face with Roiben, a wounded faerie knight.
Kaye becomes embroiled in the ongoing feud between the Seelie and the Unseelie court. Turns out that her childhood friends, Lutie-Loo, Spike, and Gristle, are not ‘imaginary friends’ after all and they are now in need of her help.
In addition to Kaye, we also follow Corny, Janet’s older brother, who is gay and a bit of an outsider. He and Kaye team up but soon learn first-hand how dangerous and brutal the faerie world can be.

“Whatever has been done to me, whatever I have done… as surely as blood soaks my hands, and it does, the stain of it touches even the hems of the Queen of Elfland.”

I had a lot of fun re-reading this. The narrative goes for this ‘edgy’ tone that for some bizarre reason I found to be strangely endearing. I liked the friendship between Kaye and Corny, and I also appreciated how flawed Black’s characters are (there is a tendency in ya to make female leads into shy/book-loving/not-like-other-girls type of characters). While the romance does have a vague hint of insta-love, Kaye and Roiben certainly have chemistry and their interactions are charged with ambivalence.
While Black’s prose here isn’t quite as gorgeous or refined as the one from her later works—she uses the dreaded “She let go a breath she didn’t even know she’d been holding” phrase—Tithe still holds up. We have some truly lush and tantalising descriptions of the faeries and their revels, as well as some bewitching scenes that really showcase Black’s knowledge of faerie tales. The riddles populating this narrative are ingenious, the court dynamics and shenanigans are intriguing, and Kaye’s arc was certainly compelling.
If you are a fan of Black’s newest series and you are in the mood for something a quick urban fantasy read, well, you may want to give Tithe a shot.

my rating: ★★★ ½

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