Kaye is not your typical 16-year-old. For one thing, she’s spent the last few years of her life acting as mother to her mother: holding Mom’s head as she vomits, following Mom around to her various unsuccessful singing gigs, working in a Chinese restaurant to make enough money so that she and Mom can eat from time to time. She doesn’t attend school and she isn’t happy in the least.
For another thing, as a child she used to have a few fairies as dear friends. Not imaginary creatures: real fairies. When Mom’s boyfriend tries to knife her, Kaye and Mom return to Grandma’s, where Kaye first knew her fairy friends, and she gets a chance to reunite with them. The only problem with this happy reunion is that the fairies have come up with a plan to — well, to say they plan to sacrifice Kaye is seemingly a tad strong. But there is no question that they want their freedom from the rule of the Unseelie Court (one of two fairy courts; the other is the Seelie Court, and they are in perpetual opposition), and that they intend for Kaye to play a dangerous role in their plan to win that freedom.
Things begin to get even more complicated when Kaye meets Robin, another fairy, but this one resembling a very handsome and desirable young man of not much more than her own age. And more complicated yet when Kaye’s mother announces that they’re leaving Grandma’s to go live in New York, where Mom has found a new band needing a female vocalist. And even more complicated when Grandma discovers that Kaye hasn’t been attending high school. And the complications keep coming: Kaye seems to have attracted the eye of her best friend Janet’s boyfriend; Janet’s brother seems to have gotten dangerously involved in the machinations of the Unseelie Court after accompanying her on a visit there; and Kaye is perhaps not who she thought she was — a problem a lot of teens face, but not to this degree.
Tithe reads at a fast clip, with engaging characters in complex situations, cast on their own wits to figure out how to deal with some very exotic problems. Traditional motifs are used to great advantage, including the posing of riddles, the binding nature of one’s use of another’s name, and the loss of will in the face of a fairy’s enchantment. Tithe isn’t a horror novel, but some of the scenes are horrifying in their effects. Imagine, for instance, being so drunk on a fairy’s glamour that you completely and whole-heartedly agree to something you know may cost you your life, and feeling happy that you have done so even while your soul is crying, “No!” To some extent, Holly Black is using this theme as a metaphor for love, or at least infatuation, that odd state when you do things you know you shouldn’t be doing just because it feels so damned good. This is a great book for teens who are just beginning to struggle with the emotional whirlwind that seem to last from the time their ages first get into the double digits until — well, until probably forever, unless you learn from your first lessons to avoid the pitfalls.
And with that insight, it should be noted that, as with much young adult literature these days, Tithe seems “YA” only by virtue of the fact that her protagonist is a teenager. Adults who enjoy good fantasy with complex problems — those who, say, like to read urban fantasy — are likely to find Black’s novel enjoyable. Tithe is probably not appropriate for children younger than high school age, unless they are precocious. If you’re the parent of such a precocious child, you may still want to give it a read first just to make sure. Chances are you’ll have such a good time that you’ll be glad you wanted to check out Tithe.