It seems that I’m forever rereading fairy stories for my Throwback Thursdays, but today is not going to be an exception. The only really surprising thing about my topic for this post is that Lady Geek Girl didn’t get to it first.
Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale by Holly Black came out in 2002 and was the formative YA novel of my teenage years. I think I may even say without overstepping that it was the formative novel of my entire friend group. What about it left such an impression?
Slight spoilers after the jump.
Tithe is the story of one Kaye Fierch, a street-smart fifteen-year-old dropout who follows her mom’s band around and who, one grim, rainy night, rescues a faerie on her way home. The faerie in question is a knight by the name of Roiben, the beautiful and unwilling lieutenant of the sinister Unseelie Queen. This debt ties Roiben to Kaye, and when she gets tied up in a faerie plot, he is dragged in along with her. The titular Tithe, dear readers, is, as in other fairy stories, a once-every-seven-years human sacrifice. In this story, the sacrifice is performed by the Unseelie Court, and in exchange, the solitary fae, unallied faeries who do homage to neither the Seelie nor the Unseelie rulers, will grant the Unseelie Queen their allegiance.
Kaye is given the dubious honor of being the sacrifice—except there’s one problem: she herself is a faerie, although she didn’t know it at first. She discovers that she was a changeling, a faerie switched out for a human child at birth, for the sole purpose of being snuck into the Tithe to muck it all up. When the solitary fae see that one of their own was played off as human and murdered, there’d be revolt and uprising against the Unseelie, and the fae would remain unbound. Kaye has no plans to die for anyone; however, in order to see who’s at the root of this plot, Kaye must play the role she’s been given and see the Tithe through as far as she can—without dragging her human friends too deeply into the murky depths of Faery in the meantime.
I said earlier that this was a formative novel for me/us, but what made it that way? First of all, although I always read above my reading level and was probably reading stuff rated for teens or older when this book came out, this is probably the first urban fantasy YA novel I can remember laying hands on. It has, I’d say fairly, set the bar for any other book I read where the fae and the modern world collide, and it’ll always have a special place in my heart for that reason.
I’m pretty sure it was also the first book I’d ever read with a real live gay character in it, as opposed to just finding them in fanfiction or not at all. Kaye’s friend Corny (short for Cornelius) is a fascinating character in that he’s really not that likeable. For cripes’ sake, the first time we meet him he’s fantasizing about going on a shooting spree. He has a mullet, he builds computers out of spare parts and collects shounen-ai manga, and he lives in a trailer with his sister and Star Trek-obsessed parents. He’s so desperate to make his life more interesting than it is that he becomes self-destructive. He’s like the Mirrorverse version of the typical Gay Best Friend.
In fact, none of the characters are particularly good people, except maybe Roiben. Kaye is manipulative, and eager to blame that on her newly discovered faerie nature rather than taking responsibility. While at first it would seem that “Seelie” and “Unseelie” are, respectively, synonyms of “good” and “evil”, the nature of Holly Black’s faeries is that they can’t really be measured in terms of human morality. The Seelie Court may be more beautiful to look at, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re the good guys. This was a new thing for me too—while the idea that beauty and goodness weren’t always the same thing had been impressed into me by other books, probably most notably the original Oz books, the idea that there just weren’t any people who could be pointed at and called the good guys was fascinatingly different.
Another thing I noted this time around was the issue of race. Being raised in an upper middle class, predominately white, conservative environment, I was the sort of little shit who claimed to not see color when I first read this book, although I did know that Kaye (or at least her human form) was biracial half-white half-Asian. (Her mom claims she was the result of a groupie hookup with the Japanese frontman of a band she loved.) Rereading, I was pleasantly surprised with the general diversity of the cast, but also with the handling of the racism that Kaye receives. As a blonde with Asian features, Kaye is constantly slotted into sex-fantasy territory by guys she meets, who ask her to wear her hair in pigtails or want to know what “flavor” of Asian she is, like she’s something to be consumed.
While I do still love the book and definitely would recommend it to anyone looking for a great YA fantasy novel, there was an edge of vague negativity for me on this most recent reread. I’m not sure how to explain this except that I think it reminds me of the annoying LOL RANDOM XD period of my teenagerhood. My friends and I reread and reread and repeated and repeated the book’s witty one liners aloud to the point of saturation and beyond. This time around, I found it hard to take seriously, for example, the villainous and cruel Nephamael telling Roiben “I think you have entirely too much dignity. I command you to dance” without hearing the roughly nine hundred times I’d heard Lady Geek Girl declaiming the line with aplomb at a sleepover or a cafeteria table. I can no longer tell if it has value as a one-liner to an outsider because it’s been an inside joke for so long, and I have trouble deciding if the book itself has a sort of “Hot Topic circa 2004” feeling to it or if it’s just that I had a “Hot Topic circa 2004” feel to me at the time I first read it that I inevitably associate with the book.
Since you, dear reader, are presumably not me, you will hopefully not have this reaction to what is, despite the above, still one of my favorite books. If you haven’t read it before, I definitely suggest you check it out and let me know what you think.