Merry Wanderer of the Night + YA

Review: Tithe by Holly Black & How Fairy Tales Adapt

A very warm welcome now to Ammy Belle who has a great post for us today about How to Find Pixies in New Jersey. Not sure what them means? Then read on!!

And, don't forget to check out Ammy's first guest post over at The Book Rat about Tender Morsels!


I suppose in some way, everyone thinks of the princess in the castle or the knight in shining armour when they think of fairy tales: your mind becomes awash in the grandeur of the Disney fairy tale – the white walls of a palace, the beautiful silhouettes of the old dresses, the magic of a time that caught somewhere in the fold of history we have yet to discover.

But the real magic of fairy tales is that they can adapt – and adapt well – to pretty much anything. The reason for this, is the plain fact that fairy tales are just moral tales – they are stories you tell people to warn them about life (especially the original ones, the ones I like to call dark fairy tales). Essentially, these modern fairy tales take the original magnetism of the stories from the olden days and attempt to fit them into some modern city or town.

Lately there has been a little bit of a trend on adapting fairy tales: one such series is the Tithe series by Holly Black. In this series (I have only read the first book, but my understanding is that the first is the best example of modern times and fairy tale) we are dropped into a fairy war, where dark fairy tales meet the New Jersey shoreline. It ‘s through the realm of faerie that Black creates, the use of iron as the boundaries between human and faerie, and the manipulation of the changeling narrative from old stories, that makes Tithe a modern faerie tale.

Kaye is our heroine. She’s a blonde haired, green eyed girl with almond shaped eyes and is pretty small for her age. She lives a nomadic lifestyle with her Mom, who sings for a series of bands. Her father isn’t in the picture, but when her mother’s boyfriend attempts to stab her, they pick up and move back to their home in New Jersey – to live with Kaye’s older, stricter grandmother, in her home near the seashore and the woods, where Kaye had imaginary friends growing up. The imaginary friends, are of course, faeries of different types, and they “play” along a little creek near her house. Little does Kaye know, they have been fighting a strange war for her whole life.

Tithe is a real faerie story – in the sense that, it has faeries. Like Tir Na Nog. In fact, very much like that: in the original faerie stories, faeries were not like Tinker Bell – they were actually untrustworthy. They guarded their own possessions jealously, and killed anyone who came at them from any which way. Faeries are manipulative and care very little for humans – and sometimes they are beautiful, but often they are gnarled and misshapen creatures that have a very scary sense of humour.

Black doesn’t hold back – she makes her story gritty and realistic, with a caffeine-addicted, chain smoking, strong willed protagonist, and her dismal nomadic background. Her friends are few and far between, and filled with jealousies. Her life is dangerous, but she doesn’t realize it, and coming back to New Jersey makes it that much worse: there in the industrial dotted river side, there lives a kelpie – a sea horse that collects young drowned girls. Black entwines the old with the new – mixing the harsh and lonely world of the kelpie, with the paint chipped world of the New Jersey boardwalk. It’s an amazing comparison, and the best example of it is when the kelpie and Kaye strike a bargain: for his boon, he requests the dilapidated old carousel horse to keep him company in the deep. This juxtaposition of old and new, on top of the contrasted faerie and human world, creates a blanket of intrigue that almost shows a compassionate side of Kaye’s world.

Such is the case with iron in Tithe: the faeries are cruel and out for themselves, their desires – whether they are actually good or bad – come before anything else – but they are nature, they represent a basic form of nature, that can be cruel and yet very vulnerable. This tension works within the New Jersey city limits – or at least, the New Jersey that Black paints for us – this urban wasteland where the shoreline is wasting away, and nature seems on the verge of making a comeback, as the water and grasses start taking over the boardwalk. Iron represents this hardline though, the thing that faeries cannot survive – they can be wild and dangerous – but put them in a car, and they’re toast.

I think that iron is an interesting choice for this. In an age where we see digital media and electricity and such as such big themes (see Steampunk), I think a return to iron is both interesting... and it makes sense – I mean, what do we have that isn’t made of iron? The whole human world seems to be a death trap for faeries, and in turn, the faeries are harsh and cruel – and they have weapons. Instead of guns, they have swords, but it works in the totality – the adaptation to the New Jersey shoreline works with the iron, the totality of the dangers for each world is balanced so well, it is almost as if New Jersey itself is a magical place.

Finally, there is the changeling aspect of the story: the changeling narrative is an old faerie tale, where faeries will steal into a nursery and switch a newborn baby with an old, dying – but veiled – faerie. There actually is no real reason, I think... or at least I have never found a common theme for all of it – though each story has its own unique spin. Tithe gives its faeries a reason for the changeling, but it changes the rules – the changeling doesn’t die, instead, the changeling becomes the story. The main viewpoint is through the lens of someone who does not quite belong and at the same time, is pivotal to everything that happens. The reason this works for the modern fairy tale, is the fact that it basically reminds us all of our awkward teenage years when we were confused about how the world fit together, but deep down inside, we knew we were special.

In the end, this is what why the modern fairy tale works – it pulls out the comparisons between the old and the new, and draws a line between these worlds... and then allows the characters to hop scotch between the lines, in order to draw the reader in. It works because we want the magic, and we recognize the setting – much like a dystopian, where the parameters of what we understand become hazy and fluxuate so that we can imagine ourselves in different situations.

Tithe was a great read, and I cannot wait for the next two instalments – not only because of weird way New Jersey becomes more magical, but also because the main love interest, Roiben – he’s awe-inspiring.

Anyways, that is my take on modern fairy tales and Tithe – go check it out, and keep reading those fairy tales – they can adapt to pretty much anything – can’t wait to see a cyberpunk fairy tale set in the future...

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Review: Tithe by Holly Black & How Fairy Tales Adapt + YA