Book Review: ‘Tithe’ by Holly Black

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Warning: spoiler alert: this review does contain spoilers as to plots, characters and endings

Oh, dear. I really wanted to like Tithe. Honestly, I really did. Firstly, it’s about faeries, and I am a whole hearted believer in faeries, imps, goblins, pixies, mermaids…well, pretty much everything, really. I love Arthur Rackham, Brian Froud, Labyrinth– I even went to a faery festival in Brighton last year. But I just couldn’t bring myself to really love Tithe, which was a shame, as it has got some good things going for it: a modern-day girl realizes she’s a changeling, and rescues a mysterious faerie knight. It has a sinister witch in it. It has a CENTRAL gay character (praise be!) It also has some nice descriptions and phrases, and it even mentions  one of my all-time favourite singers, Grace Slick, at one point, and her song ‘White Rabbit.’ I enjoyed all of this, but there were so many other disappointments I didn’t really enjoy anything else. For a start, it proudly proclaims itself to be a ‘modern faerie tale.’ Fine, that’s a cool idea, but in that case, where’s the modernity in it? The faeries in Tithe are woefully unoriginal- they wear garments made out of leaves and thorns, they eat strange gilded fruit, they caper around mushrooms and under hills, they have beautiful knights and beautiful, rather cruel Queens…sorry, but I believe I’ve heard this all before- in every single traditional fairy tale that I’ve ever read. I was expecting faeries in modern dress, with modern attitudes. Instead, I got the aforementioned Brian Froud-esque  faeries. There’s nothing wrong with Brian Froud faeries- I love them- it’s just that I wanted something a bit different, and artists such as Brian Froud, Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham are so synonymous with that kind of style, anything so similar seems jarring (and, needless to say, a bit unoriginal.) These frolicsome faeries then just happen to run into Kaye, probably the world’s only annoying changeling-slash-pixie. To be honest, Kaye when she thought she was still human wasn’t much better, either- at only sixteen she chain smokes, drinks too much, has spent most of her childhood ‘fishing her mum’s head out of toilets’, and generally couch-surfing at her best friend’s home. At first, I liked the rebellious vibe that Kaye had- a nice foil to that oh-so-not-endearing passivity that Bella Swan has- but as the novel progressed and her main activities seemed to be:

a)      Sitting on said best friend’s couch

b)      Drinking

c)       Stealing

d)      Chain-smoking

e)      Occasionally mumbling about finding a job/getting a GED

f)       Watching TV (again, on the couch)

g)      Smoking some more

And that was about it. Soon, the ‘rebellious’ glamour wore away, and Kaye became more of a ‘not-very-interesting  slacker drop-out’ in my eyes. The fact that those tendencies didn’t fade away after she discovered her true identity as a changeling was, well, disappointing. Perhaps I’m being harsh, given Kaye’s woefully negligent mum, but I just couldn’t identify with her character (i.e. Kaye, not Mum of the Year.) She’s the main character, and yet there’s nothing about her that’s inspirational, creative or even particularly proactive. (Unless of course, you count snogging her best friend’s love rat boyfriend for NO REASON, other than to see if she could get away with it. In the end, he does- quelle surprise– but he’s such a douchebag, I was wondering why she even bothered in the first place. Kenny- yep, his name really is Kenny- makes a toad look positively dateable.)

In terms of writing, I like my heroines to be go-getting, brave, daring and witty. Kaye showed a bit of imaginative flare in dealing with a particularly bothersome kelpie, but that was about it. Actually, come to think of it, the kelpie was the most interesting character in the whole book- witty, acerbic, poetic, and so villainous he should have been twirling a moustache. Most of the time Kaye was either flirting with the faerie knight (Rath Roi-something: I never did quite get his name,) being hurt/dismissed/insulted by Rath Raisin-something, smoking or drinking. And oh yeah, stealing- quite A LOT actually. A whole scene is dedicated to her and her ‘bestie’, Janet, stealing from a mall, and ‘dividing up their loot.’ Hmm, she sounds like a real role model for young, impressionable girls.  And there, for me, lies the rub. The book says on the back cover that it’s for older readers, yet even I- devoted reading of Gothic horror and writer of vampire novels- felt turned off by the sheer amount of swearing, smoking, drinking and general anti-social behaviour in Tithe– and all from sixteen year olds. I know that makes me sound about forty, but some of the swearing was really quite lurid, to say the least, and I felt as though Holly Black was just putting in swear words for the sake of them. Every other word, at points, seemed to be an expletive.

And then there was Rath Rooftile-something. Even though Kaye saves his life, he throws her to the ground, hurts her wrist and is generally cold, rude and dismissive. In return, Kaye kisses him (more than once, I hasten to add,) lets him share her bedroom, flirts with him (she does a lot of that)…you get the idea. Meanwhile, her new gay best friend, Cornelius (yep, real name- not this Cornelius either, sadly) languishes under a fairy hill. Everyone gets a makeover- Kaye, who is of course, beautiful- even as a green skinned pixie- ends up looking lovely in some kind of gossamer fairy dress (swoon) while good old Corny ends up in a ‘Jacobean’ outfit (novel’s words, not mine.) Somehow, while everyone’s getting made over, no-one bothers to tell Rath-something that an icicle has more emotional warmth.

Rating: in my humble opinion (and it really is just personal opinion)-  three out of ten stars.

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