Saturday, May 08, 2010

Tithe, by Holly Black

This is one selected by one of the members of the Mother-Daughter book club, and by the time we read it and met, not even she thought it was a good book. It is the debut novel by the writer who went on to write the much more popular Spiderwick Chronicles, and is targeted to an older, YA audience. It is a mash-up of Irish folklore in a grimy New Jersey setting, with cardboard characterizations and an unrelievedly bleak outlook.

Sixteen year old Kaye lives with her mother Ellen, who is getting too old to keep chasing her rock and roll dreams. Kaye is the parent in the relationship, and has dropped out of school to deliver Chinese food full time for the income. She also loads band equipment, drops cigarette butts into her mother's beer bottles, and holds her mother's hair as she vomits into the toilet. Her life is like a bad Kesha video, actually. They are in Pennsylvania at the beginning of the book, when Ellen's boyfriend tries to stab her with a knife. Ellen makes the only good decision in the entire book and decides to move out, taking Kaye back to her own mother's house in New Jersey.

Back in New Jersey, Kaye reconnects with an old friend named Janet, who mentions that Kaye used to have some imaginary friends that she used to talk about all the time. It turns out that these were fairies, and Kaye herself turns out to be a changeling--a fairy child substituted for a human baby. Kaye starts to discover all the magic that underlies her existence, and ends up inside the sithen in the Unseelie Court in America. There is a wounded Seelie knight she saves the life of and falls "in love" with, and a complicated intrigue involving a "tithe." Every x number of years (I forget exactly--seven makes sense, but it might have been more) the Courts of Faerie require a human sacrifice which binds all the solitary fay to the court's rule. Kaye's childhood fairy friends want her to be the sacrifice, because she isn't actually a human and thus will negate the sacrifice. The fay will then not be bound to the courts, and free to live independently. They convince Kaye to join this plan.

But things are not so easy--because there is a power struggle between the Seelie and Unseelie courts (which concepts are not explained--you have to already know a fair amount about Irish folklore to get the full impact of these alliances and conspiracies) and some of the fay know Kaye isn't human, and some of them are lying about aborting the sacrifice, and some of them are maneuvering for their own power. In the end--after a lot of plot machinations that don't make a whole lot of sense, Kaye's wounded faerie knight is on the throne of the Unseelie Court, and she is positioned to be his consort. But she also has to go home to her mother and grandmother, so I'm not certain what Black was trying to do here.

There are some real weaknesses in this book, not the first of which is the grotty life Kaye lives as a human girl. When her actual life is that unpleasant, it's hard for Black to paint an Unseelie Court that is more repulsive than what her life is like living in New Jersey. A nasty "party" with some high school kids in an abandoned warehouse is every bit as off-putting as the underground sithen of the fay. Kaye's "friend" gets drunk, tries to make her boyfriend jealous by hitting on another boy--who turns out to be a kelpie who drowns her. So she's dead, but no one seems to be bothered much by her death. Her life was pretty grim anyway, living in a trailer home with her older brother who worked the night shift at a gas station. . .all so dreary and dirty and unhappy that there was really no sense that any of the characters stood to lose anything either by chosing to remain in Faerie or in leaving it.

So, in short--don't bother.

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