Tithe by Holly Black
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Another book from that Humble Bundle that had a bunch of Simon and Schuster YA books. This book was OK. Not my cup of tea, but not bad. As I said in my status updates, Ms Black is pretty good at subverting my expectations. I’ll get back to this in a moment.
For someone who could not really care less about “the fey” as fairies are apparently called, especially if they’re spelled “faerie”, I’ve ended up with a lot of fey books via various bundles. So there are lots of tropes I’m not familiar with, like the fact that faeries are apparently deathly allergic to iron. Why is that? Does it have to do with why we don’t see faeries now? Because of the iron age of humans? Luckily, this book was written for people were a little less familiar because it explained things like changelings, kupies, and the iron allergy.
Between reddit, Goodreads, and other forums, I’ve seen a lot of debates about adults reading YA. Frankly, I think a good story is a good story. My current position (subject to change with experience and age) is that the only annoying thing about YA can be the fact that the older you, the less tolerance you have for teenage BS. My traditional example is rooting for Ariel in Disney’s Little Mermaid as she rebels against the authoritarian regime of her father’s rule vs watching as an adult and realizing she’s a spoiled little brat who’s lucky as eff she doesn’t end up dead or sexually used and abused.
What’s often neat about YA, by contrast, is that it’s often pushing the boundaries of storytelling. Adult fiction is so staid…so risk-averse like the movie industry. Meanwhile in YA we have lots of women protagonists, people of color, LGBT people, etc. Unlike Middlegrade books, the characters can also be a little more realistic and a little less black and white in terms of morality. This often leads me to have some caveats on my reviews when it comes to the fact that some parents are more liberal and some are more conservative. Some authors are like – YA == teens and teens have sex so everyone needs to be boning. When it comes to this book – I have to say that I disagree slightly with Jilly’s (a GR friend) review. While this book’s main character (Kaye) is not a good role model for teens, I have some hopes for her as a character. What are her flaws: she actively skips school, she smokes, she relishes the attention her best friend’s boyfriend gives her and does not stop him from kissing her. All very mild by YA standards. But I think there isn’t much glamorized about her faults and even Kaye is often disappointed at where she is in life. No goodie-two-shoes kid is going to read about Kaye and decide to be like her. What I do hope is that if some kid who’s on the same track as Kaye reads this book they can see themselves in the character and perhaps become life-long readers (which will serve them well in life) and/or change course. Of course, there’s also option 3 – a kid who’s never going to act like Kaye, but can live vicariously through her. Just like I don’t have any misconceptions about the evils of killing, but it can be fun to act in cartooney violence in Team Fortress 2.
So, let’s get to the story itself. The story initially sets itself up the same way as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Kaye used to play with faeries as a kid, but hasn’t seen them since her family moved out of Jersey. Her mom is in a band, rather than perhaps asking the grandma to watch over Kaye (or some other stabilizing situation) turns her into a roadie. So Kaye becomes a bad girl…although, as I said above, VERY TAME compared to the kids I knew in school. Sure, I ran with the goodie-two-shoes kids, but I had friends all over school and if even half of what they claimed to do was true at the time, Kaye’s pretty mild. Shoot, she doesn’t even do drugs, she just smokes. Things go awry and Kaye and her mom move back to Jersey to temporarily live with grams. Kaye hooks back up with her literal trailer park friend and they get up to teenage mischief, including going to an abandoned building where Kaye almost gets raped by her friend’s boyfriend. The faeries make an appearance and we learn that Kaye wasn’t just making things up as a kid.
I’m going to stop here in case you actually want to read the book. Because Ms Black has quite a few twists and turns that were entertaining for someone like me that is such a trope nerd, he barely ever gets surprised watching TV or movies. I think a good book subverts my expectations at least once. This book does it multiple times, including one almost Fight Club-level twist. (I’ll admit some of this could be due to me not being a fey nerd)
What things did I really like that aren’t spoilery:
-There’s a gay character who isn’t a stereotype. In fact, until he reveals that he’s gay there’s nothing to betray that fact. I’m of the opinion that when it comes to non-standard characters (non-white, middle class male) what’s best is to have a character that is in most ways no different than a standard character except for a few things that are informed by the difference. For example, an African American character doesn’t have to have ghetto-speak or even come from the wrong side of the tracks. But perhaps, especially in today’s environment, he could have a slightly heightened suspicion of authority. The gay character in this book is like that. There are some things that are informed by the fact that he’s gay, but he’s not a walking stereotype.
-Kaye feels very conflicted about her near rape. I’m not female bodied, so I’ll never had the same understanding of rape as a woman, but from what I’ve heard, some girls/women end up feeling extremely conflicted about the emotions and bodily reactions. Some feel weird or shamed or guilty if some part of them enjoyed it or even feel betrayed if their body was willing (I’m going to leave it there to not get too explicit here) and Kaye is no exception. Especially because the rape doesn’t happen and her teenage hormones, it makes sense.
-Related to that, I like that Kaye feels unsure of how she’s reacting with her best friend’s bf. I think this can persist into adulthood (to a stronger or weaker degree depending on the person), but as a teen, it can be hard in the moment to override hormones, desire, etc if someone’s in your personal space. Since the guy is actively going after her rather than the opposite, it makes it even more complicated. She’s not doing anything to make this guy pursue her so there’s less guilt compared to if she was actively trying to steal her friend’s man. Also, given her nomadic lifestyle and self-described weirdness, maybe she’s extra jonesing for some intimacy because she hasn’t had much/any?
-Again, without getting into spoilers, I really like that there’s a lot more shades of grey with the motivations of many characters, especially the fey. I get this is a bit of trope with fey fiction, but other than the one Discworld novel that dealt with faeries, I’m not used to them being anything but Tinkerbells.
Wow, this review really ballooned beyond where I thought it would go when I started writing. So, who do I recommend this to? If you’re an adult who’s not REALLY into YA, it might be a bit too kiddie for you. But if you really like YA and like faerie/fey stuff, jump right in. If you’re a teen – it’s going to depend on whether you’re into faerie stuff and/or Kaye’s life seems authentic or not to your experience. If you’re a parent – I personally think this is one of the mildest YA books I’ve read in terms of objectionable stuff. (Shoot, the kids I grew up with who went to church 3 times a week did more sexually than Kaye does) I’d only avoid if you’re one of those super religious people who don’t let their kids read Harry Potter. If your kids are less than teenage, but advanced at reading – you might want to have an open dialogue or offer an open dialogue with your kid so they can talk about anything that makes them uncomfortable. Although Kaye and someone she ends up in bed with don’t do anything other than kiss – there is the fact that she’s sharing the bed with someone she’s attracted to. Also, (view spoiler)[there is the death of one of her peers (hide spoiler)]