Holly Black’s TITHE: Fine Teen Guilty Pleasure, But Why Give It Children’s Awards?


It is one thing for adults to survey the world of books aimed at the adolescent female audience and admit that, yeah, I can see why girls would be drawn to this sort of soap opera trash.  It is quite another thing to heap awards in front of this sort of for-children writing.

When it comes to exploring the land of poor life-choices, I’d be the first to admit that I’ve had some of my most pleasurable and memorable moments whilst visiting that all-too-well-discovered country of sex, drugs, and great music.  I’ve done stupid and I’ve done evil, and I’m casting stones at neither the mistake-makers nor the just plain hellbent–  I’ve been so bent toward Hell that before certain nights were through I had sommersaulted back around and found myself staring straight through Heaven.  As The Four Seasons say, “Oh, what a night…”

But it’s one thing to tell a child that you’ve had the same desires and temptations, that you’ve made the same mistakes or explored the same taboos, that you understand why he or she would be drawn to experience the dark alleys as well as the sunlit boulevards of life… and it is quite another thing to outright glamorize such choices.

Now an author can tell you that they are not glamorizing the seedy side of life merely by writing about it sympathetically, but then they’d be full of it.  To write a sympathetic character, and to have that character move in larger than life circles through scenes exciting and titilating– that is AUTOMATICALLY glamorizing the situation.  It’s the nature of the beasty.  The main character becomes a sort of a hero for us-the-reader, and anything a hero does cannot but help to partake of some of the glamour which halos a hero.  Some part of us will look up to the character, condone her behavior, possibly even be influenced by her decisions, actions, and rationales.

An author can finish her story on the most obvious lesson-to-be-learned endnote– she can have it all come crashing horribly down– and yet, just by presenting us with a character we can sympathize with, just by painting vivid and exciting scenes for us (and if the author hasn’t done these things, then we probably didn’t read much of her book to begin with)– then the author still can’t help the fact that the situation will become glamorized.  We humans can’t help but be mesmerized by interesting people who live outside the normal lines of propriety and wisdom and love (self-directed and/or outwardly directed love).   We don’t usually make heroes out of people we think are doing lame shit.  The child reading Black’s novel is likely to think, at some level… Well, if SHE did it and came out okay…

The subject of sex permeates Ms. Black’s novel Tithe, her female heroine sashaying through nights filled with drinking and  with smoking one substance or another.  Also, the book contains violence of an extreme nature.

After reading Tithe, I am left with the assumption that there is no line uncrossable in juvenile fiction today.  I’ll leave others to debate the pros and cons of that… I will only say that I believe there are both— that is, there are positive things to be said about writing books about what certain kids are REALLY doing out there, and there are negative aspects to those same type of stories.

The heroine of Tithe, Kaye, doesn’t come from the best of homes.  She’s never even been introduced to her own father.  The poor girl’s mother-unit is in a struggling rock band and was recently beat-up by her (now ex-) boyfriend.  This beating and break-up sends mother and daughter back to the mother’s mother, our heroine’s grandmother, in search of a free place to stay.

The prologue of Tithe starts off with a keynote-sounding paragraph:  “Kaye took another drag on her cigarette and dropped it into her mother’s beer bottle.  She figured that would be a good test for how drunk Ellen was– see if she would swallow a butt whole.”

This is an impressive beginning… We learn so much in those few sentences:  1) Kaye’s a rebel (smoking),  2) her mother’s a drunk, 3) Kaye has resentment against said mother and judges her harshly, 4) and we can surmise that there’s not a typical mother-daughter vibe going on here since Kaye does not call her mother “mom” (or some variant), but by her first name.

However, the rest of the prologue doesn’t feel like an organic part of the book… it is as if it was tacked on later after some editor’s or reader’s suggestion.

The ending was also lame, structurally speaking.  I think the book’s proper ending point was reached one hundred pages before the actual ending.  The ending line SHOULD have occurred when Kaye is running from the monsters “until she realizes that she is one of the monsters.”  The story seriously loses steam after this, becoming solely what it always was underneath… a stupid teenage love story, with our dear female protagonist in love with a cardboard cut-out love interest who is MysteriousExcitingForbidden.  Or as our protag calls her love-interest herself:  “The most cool, amazing, dangerous, storybook guy ever.”

Kaye has teen-problems-PLUS.  Adults don’t understand her.  (“You don’t know me at all!” she yells at her grandmother).  She is being forced to move away from her friends.  (“I’m not going to New York,” she tells her mother… wait, she’s turning down New York?!).  And she’s got some real man-hate issues (on her boytoy, Kenny:  “He was every arrogant boyfriend that had treated her mother badly.  He was every boy that told her she was too freaky, who had laughed at her, or who just wanted her to shut up and make out.”)

There are some places in the novel where the plotting seems forced, such as the way Kaye and her friend, Corny, stumble upon a secret wild party that some Faeries are throwing.

Black does set-up some cinematically friendly scenes– there are sluttily dressed nubiles and drug-and-party scenes and one scene with an abandoned theme park feel that would translate nicely to the big screen.

One idea of Black’s I really liked… In the mythology of her created world, Faeries are deathly allergic to iron.  Although Black no where goes very deeply into it, the Faery allergy to iron would explain why they stay out of populated areas.  That’s good myth-building.  If I ever need this iron-allergy idea for a Fairy story of my own, I might borrow it, just like so many Vampire-story writers have adopted the idea that Vampires have a virus that make them turn all Vampy.

My biggest problem with Black’s mythology was her adoption of the idea that if you call a Faery by name, he or she has to do whatever you say.  At one point a character tells a Faery to “kiss my ass,” using his full name– and so he does.  Ha ha.  Maybe the kids like that joke, but I found it ridiculous.

I also think it would have made for better mythology if the “glamour” which camouflages Faeries and can help them blend in with other humans did not also make them, seemingly, immune from their iron allergy.

One huge stumbling block for me was that I could never keep the two Faery Courts of Tithe straight.  Not only are the two courts similarly named (the “Seelie” and the “Unseelie” courts), but there are characters which have been criss-crossed between the courts.  There’s also a third group of Fairyfolk which complicates matters still more.  And I gave up trying to figure out which group of Faeries was behind the trick to get Kaye back to the town she lived in as a child.

I felt that some of the story’s plot points were not thought all the way through… Like, at one point, a character whispers another character a riddle to solve that will help them both out– and it turns out later it would have been just as easy for him to have just whispered the freakin’ answer.

But perhaps the biggest flaw of Tithe is that the problem at the tale’s heart (the situation that is driving all the action) never made any sense to me.  It involves the need for a human sacrifice, but why or how the human sacrifice fixes everything was never clear to me.  And if Black explained the whole “tithe” tie-in of the title, I missed it completely.  A tithe is a tenth, of course, or a fractional sacrifice.  Maybe in Black’s mind she was reaching for some connection to the old Greek myth of the Athenian’s periodic sacrifice of youth to Crete.  Perhaps the better title for Ms. Black’s book would have been “Sacrifice”– but “Tithe” just sounded cooler, so her and her publishers went with it.

And here’s an oddity I feel impelled to note…  There’s a section that seems to be spliced together over a now-missing part of the book.  Here is the section I’m referencing…

” ‘I have to get out of this car.’

   ‘We’re almost there.’  Corny stopped at the red light.

[something missing here???]

   Corny parked the car outside the big building. “

Just struck me as strange to jerk straight from “stopped at the red light” to “parked the car.”


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