The newest book in the line-up is Tithe by Holly Black, and I’m approaching it with a little trepidation. Because I really liked Tithe, and I hope by the end of this read-through, I can continue liking it.
This is an important book for me, and that may partially be because the main character and I share the same name: Kaye. Even now, I get a small thrill from seeing my name printed in a book. But more than that, I consider Tithe my introduction to YA fiction. There’s magic, violence, romance, with an edgy teen girl taking the lead. This was my window into urban fantasy, and epigraphs, two things that I came to love. Tithe was easily one of the most influential books when it came to my own fiction writing in adolescence and young adulthood.
After I bought Tithe, I was so excited to get into it that I actually read the prologue. Before this, I’d always thought that a prologue was like an introduction to a book, written by some distinguished author about how great the book is. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that a prologue is actually part of the story, and I read prologues from there on out. So you could say Holly Black introduced me to prologues as well.
The book opens with our protagonist, Kaye Fierch, a sixteen-year-old who travels with her mother’s band. At the end of a show, one of the band members attempts to stab Kaye’s mom. Kaye stops him, and she and her mother decide to go to New Jersey, where our story kicks off.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get as sucked into the prologue as I did when I first read this. The intrigue isn’t there, and the near-stabbing was written very matter-of-factly, so it’s not terribly thrilling the second time around. I was worried that the first chapter – and the rest of the book – would be disappointing.
I was wrong on that count. At least, regarding the first chapter. It opens with Kaye and her friend Janet on a beach in New Jersey, and there’s some decent foreshadowing here. It’s mentioned how the city always smells like iron, and she always had the stinging taste of metal in her throat. The real meaning of this becomes apparent later in the book, when Kaye discovers her Otherworldly roots.
It also sent me back to a more innocent time, when I was fourteen and reading Tithe for the first time. At one point, Janet tells Kaye, “your hair’s fucked up.” I was a fairly voracious reader, but that was the first time I had ever read “fuck” in one of my books. I was so startled (and a bit giggly) that I had to show it to my mom, who scoffed. I think she had a couple second thoughts about me reading this.
It brought me back to just being fourteen, how much I loved to run when the wind was blowing hard, and getting so wound up and “high on life” just by a lively environment around me. I was the kid who danced in the rain during wild thunderstorms, who would have stuck my head out of car windows to feel the wind if my mom had let me. I loved to go fast, to feel wild and alive.
She was giddy with night air, burning like the white-hot moon. Everything smelled wet and feral like it did before a thunderstorm, and she wanted to run, swift and eager, beyond the edge of what she could see.
That, and Kaye and Janet aren’t really on the same page. They’re still friends, but Janet doesn’t really “get” Kaye. While Janet is worried about Kaye meeting boys, Kaye wants to swim naked in the ocean and look for incubi. They have completely different priorities, and the only reason they’re friends now is out of habit.
My best friend in high school didn’t really “get” me, either. We loved each other, but we would get wound up over things that the other wouldn’t care about in the slightest. The last time I saw her in person was years ago, and we realized that the only thing we had in common anymore was the past. So many people I grew up with were friends out of habit, and comfort. In college, I was stunned when I realized that my friends were my friends because they liked me, not just because we’d gone to school together for ten years.
Kaye and Janet leave the beach to meet Janet’s friends at an abandoned carousel on the boardwalk. This is a setting that I love. The carousel house is broken and disarrayed, a place that used to be bright and joyful now a place for teenagers to break into and drink. As Kaye explores it further, she discovers a beautiful carousel horse that had been left behind because its legs were shattered. It’s a place full of grit and hopelessness, but there’s a hidden beauty in it. It’s a good summary for the whole story: the blue-collar backdrop, the dangerous but enchanting realm of the faeries.
While exploring, Kaye thinks about her imaginary faerie friends she had when she was a kid, before moving to Philadlpheia with her mom.
But they never came when she was in Philadelphia. And now she was sixteen and felt like she had no imagination left.
That second sentence is…haunting. I’ve talked a bit about imagination and growing up in my read through of The Magician’s Nephew, but mainly in the context of keeping it alive once we’re no longer children. Here is something different: the loss of just that. Like the day you pick up your toys and find that the magic was gone, and the stories you told with them were meaningless. When you come to see that your toys were just plastic, there’s no secret world in your wardrobe or monsters under your bed. That you look at the world around you, and understand that there are no secrets left to uncover.
It’s something that I’ve been worrying about for a long time: if everything I write is just parroted from a better author, if I have no original ideas. If everything has been done before, what’s left for me to create? How do I repeat the same ideas and make them mine?
That feeling doesn’t go away when you mature. It only grows, and reminds you that you’re running out of time.
…That got grim.
As I mentioned, the carousel is where Kaye meets Janet’s friends, who have gathered to drink and smoke. I was a pretty straitlaced kid, and I grew up to be a pretty straitlaced adult. I used to think that Janet and her friends were just bad kids for drinking and smoking. And while I can’t say I approve of sixteen-year-olds drinking bourbon, there are so much worse things they could be doing. No, it’s not good, but it’s still better than doing harder drugs or crimes other than drinking underage. Even if it’s not a good trait to have, it’s normal for some teenagers to drink and smoke underage. Since I’ve gotten older, I have a new definition of “bad”, and underage drinking doesn’t even crack the top 10 of “worst things you can do”.
Kaye wanders away from Janet’s friends, and without knowing it, performs magic by making a broken carousel horse stand on its own. She is caught by Janet’s boyfriend, Kenny. He takes a chance to cop a feel, causing Kaye’s shirt to rip when she stumbles, shocked.
Janet spots this, and she immediately goes after Kenny. She doesn’t accuse Kaye of trying to steal her boyfriend, but rushes in to defend her friend against someone that she loves, someone she’s devoted to.
I didn’t think about this much when I first read Tithe. Because, obviously, my friends would be at my side in that unlikely scenario. But I’ve learned a lot more about the world since then. I’ve learned about victim blaming and women who tear other women down. I’ve had my own #MeToo story. Janet was never my favorite character, but she did exactly the right thing here.