Holly Black, tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale (Simon and Schuster, 2002)

tithe is a new work of urban fantasy, the first novel from author Holly Black. Set in New Jersey as well as Under the Hill in Faerie, tithe deals with sixteen-year-old misfit Kaye Fierch as she is drawn into intrigue involving the Seelie and Unseelie Courts of Faerie and the Solitary Fey.

The Unseelie Queen is looking for a tithe, a human sacrifice. This sacrifice will compel the Solitary Fey to offer fealty and obedience to the Unseelie Court for the duration of the next seven year period. Able to see faeries since she was small, Kaye has been suggested as the sacrifice by her Solitary Fey friends. A Fey called the Thistlewitch explains that Kaye is not mortal, but a changeling, and if her true nature is revealed at the moment of sacrifice the tithe will be void and her friends will be free for seven years. Kaye agrees to the ruse, believing that she and her friends will be able to fool the Unseelie Court.

Along the way Kaye discovers her Fey abilities, befriends a Seelie knight who has been forced to serve in the Unseelie Court, and inadvertently allows a human friend to be seduced by an Unseelie knight.  Kaye discovers that she has the potential to abuse her powers. She also discovers that things in Faerie are not always what they seem to be, appearances mean little, and when the Fey are involved it's dangerous to trust the wrong people. The key to her salvation is the fascinating combination of her fey powers with her steadfastly mortal mind.

It is to be expected that a new author in the urban fantasy field will be compared with the greats: Emma Bull, Terri Windling, Charles de Lint (de Lint in particular wrote The Jack of Kinrowan with just such another intrepid female protagonist).  Let me say at this point that Miss Black has no reason to fear such comparisons. While certainly reminiscent of some forerunners of the genre, tithe is never derivative. In fact, though still working within the parameters set by traditional folklore, Holly Black approaches the world of Faerie from a new and wonderfully original angle. Her view of the world Under the Hill is, if not entirely dark, certainly far more shadowed and foreboding than I remember having seen in previous works of this nature. Her world of Faerie is kaleidoscopic and sometimes frightening, almost hallucinatory in perspective, yet utterly and intensely fascinating.

tithe is beautifully written. Black has a rare gift for descriptive language and a deliciously creative imagination, which she combines to illuminate scenes with uncommon vibrancy. The first lines of the book snatched me up by the scruff of the neck and dropped me onto a stool in a cheap bar in Philadelphia; later her description of a Faerie ball Under the Hill had me shivering with visions of debauchery. Her prose is evocative and poetic: a rich treat, like hot fudge for the imagination. For example, we all know the perils of eating Faerie food, but this passage is delicious:

"Go ahead," Nephemael said, nodding toward the trees. "Eat whatever you desire."

Corny was no longer sure whether he was hungry. Still, to be polite and to avoid displeasing the knight, he went over and plucked an apple from one of the trees. It tumbled easily into his hand. The silver skin was warm to the touch, as though blood ran beneath the surface.

Corny looked up at Nephamael, who appeared to be studying a white bird perched in one of the trees. Corny took a cautious bite of the fruit.

It tasted of fullness, of longing and wishful thinking and want, so that one bite left him empty.

And the wildest of parties pales beside a rave attended by the Fey:

A freckle-faced faerie with flame-red hair that rose up into a Dr. Seuss curl was the first one that she saw. He was dancing like the others, but when he saw her stare, he winked. Looking quickly around, she noticed more, winged sprites with tiny silver hoops piercing the points of their ears, goblins the size of dogs drinking bottled water off the top of the bar, a green-skinned pixie boy with a blue glow stick lighting up the inside of his mouth. And other fey, dim shadows at the edges of the club, flashes of glittering scales, luring dancers into the empty bathrooms and out onto the pier.

A bit like Laurell K. Hamilton's Meredith Gentry novels (see GMR's review of  A Kiss of Shadows ), tithe touches on the sexual nature of the Fey. Unlike Hamilton, though, Holly Black fully grasps the difference between erotic and merely tawdry. tithe is described as a "young adult" novel, for ages 12 and up, but I believe that a few of the tastier bits of the book will be wasted on the younger audience. They may "get it" intellectually, but I'm willing to bet that they'll miss out on the more visceral impact of some passages. Older readers may be more receptive to Black's talent for stimulating description.

Holly Black is a wonderfully talented writer and tithe is an extremely impressive and enjoyable novel. I have but one issue with the book, and this is where the inevitable comparison enters the picture. Black, while delightfully original and unmistakably gifted, has not yet quite mastered the delicate nuances that separate the creation of a character and the fabrication of a soul which brings that character to life.  Unlike de Lint's Jilly Coppercorn and Sophie Etoile, or Bull's Eddi McCandry and Phouka (in her novel War for the Oaks), Black's Kaye, Roiben and the rest never completely make that leap into reality that gives the reader the sense that one might one day catch a glimpse of the character across a crowded room, or brush past them on a busy street. Black has given her characters personalities, but not souls. There are a few times when she comes close, when that bright spark almost awakens her creatures, and each time I caught myself hoping...alas, no.

This is not to denigrate Miss Black in any way, for that gift of transcendence is elusive and rare. But it is a disappointment. I find it especially distracting when lesser characters with nonetheless pivotal roles are given such short shrift and remain  two-dimensional. Some characters, such as Kaye's mother, are given quite a bit of promising description, but then left to their own devices. When one character is killed late in the story, and Kaye is plunged into grief, it feels at best superficially sad because that character was never properly developed. This, again, is my only real quibble with tithe, and let me add a caveat: I absolutely believe that Holly Black has the talent and skill to overcome this problem in future works.

All things considered, tithe is without a doubt the best new book I've read this year. I certainly look forward to a future filled with new and juicy surprises from the wild and wicked imagination of Holly Black.

[Maria Nutick]

For more information on Holly Black, visit her lovely Web site.