She thought of the faeries she had known when she was a child – impish, quick things – no mention of wars or magical arrows or enemies, certainly no lies, no deception. The man bleeding in the dirt beside her told her how wrong her perceptions of Faery had been.

I was a little wary about reading this book. The cover carries a single word rave from Michael Moorcock, ‘Superb’, and after my last brush with the kind of books that warrant his approval, I was afraid my favourite fantasy author had steered me wrong once again.

As it happens this book is a surprising update of Celtic mythology in a modern setting, with no shrinking away from sexual undertones and the capriciousness of ‘the Fae’. In fact the darker tone of this book reminded me of Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies, which includes the following passage (and for the purposes of this review, read for ‘elves’, ‘fairies’) –

Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.

Sixteen-year old Kaye gets that most people think she’s a weird kid. After all, she’s lived a pretty weird life. She never knew her father, as she is the product of her mother’s promiscuous past as a rock chick groupie. Her Asian features combined with bright blond hair tends to turn heads wherever she goes. Also she dropped out of school a few years ago so she could work in a Chinese takeaway to help her failed musician mother pay their bills. Oh and when she was a kid, she was visited by faeries.

When the latest in a long line of crummy boyfriends assaults her mother, Kaye’s grandmother agrees to let them stay until they can find somewhere else to live. During the day Kaye pretends to go to school and hangs out with friends she has not seen in years. The faces from her childhood are not only older now, but carry the glazed expression of drink that she has grown familiar with from life on the road with her mother. Still they are the only friends she has. Kaye is used to living with less.

She goes out one night with her childhood friend Janet and a group of boys to hang out at an abandoned fair-ground. There Kenny, Janet’s boyfriend, suddenly becomes very forward with Kaye. Alarmed, she runs out into the night despite a raging storm. On her way home she comes upon a man dressed like a knight in black armour, lying in the mud with an iron-tipped arrow piercing his chest. He reveals to her that he is a faerie indentured into the service of the Queen of the Unseelie Court. When Kaye tricks him into revealing his true name, the two are bound together for better or worse. She soon discovers not only has she lived a weird life, but she herself is a lot weirder than anyone could have imagined.

While this book could easily be seen as yet another example of the ‘dark romance’ genre that is flooding the market now thanks to the success of Twilight and copycat novels, Holly Black infuses her mythic tale with a fantastical vision of sexuality more akin to novels by Clive Barker, or Poppy Z. Brite.

I mean this as a compliment. In transporting this tale of changelings, warring faerie courts and conniving monarchs to a modern setting, Black retains much of the sexually charged content of the original fairy tales. In particular the character of Nephamael, whose clothing is entwined with thorns, is an unabashed representation of gay S&M themes.

This is actually the first book in a new series of novels by Black, who also wrote The Spiderwick Chronicles for children. While this book does not shy away from portraying the difficulties faced by its teenage characters in these disaffected times – escaping into alcohol, sex and even comic books to avoid ‘real life’ – I would not recommend it for readers under sixteen.

I love the parallel corruption of Kaye’s fantasy world as a dark reflection of the adult world she is entering into. As a metaphor for the loss of innocence that comes after childhood, Tithe is well-paced and relatable.

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