Author: Holly Black
Genre: Urban Fantasy, Fantasy, Contemporary
Rating: ★★★★☆ || 4.0 stars
Tithe was and remains one of my favourite books from my childhood, and I still look back on it fondly, though I can’t tell if it’s because of nostalgia, or because Kaye was one of the only explicitly Asian characters in my life back then, or because Rath Roiben Rye was so hunky or what. And I must have been about 10 when I first picked the book up from the library (cos look at that cover, who wouldn’t) and I was going into my rebellious pimply teenager phase, the kind who thought that wearing Converse with a ball gown was So Edgy and thought barbed wire was an aesthetic and thought Jersey was the best place on earth (full disclosure: still a proud Jersey girl). Which is probably why Tithe, which was the very definition of early pre-teen punk indie emo set in New Jersey, still resonates with me today. And why I still go back and reread it. (Also, come on. We’re pretty much culturally conditioned to enjoy romances between spunky, intrepid tough girls and cold, emotionally constipated men who want to love them but can’t because they’re cursed. I can’t help it if Tam Lin’s my favourite story archetype. #excuses)
First things first, though: the 4.0 rating is purely the nostalgia speaking. Because if I read it now or even a few years ago, this might be a 3.0, a 3.5 at best, because in terms of #representation it’s like…adequate, but in the way that like trough water is adequate for a person who’s been wandering lost in the desert for 10 years. There weren’t many Asians in the novels back then, you see. Our media wasn’t as #trendy then as it is now, you see, and our food? Wasn’t being packaged by Trader Joe’s to sell at $8209348 a pop.
Kaye is That Kind of Asian Girl as Written by White People. She’s tough, of course (unlike those Other Asian Girls). She’s biracial, which of course resulted in her having “Asian features” but naturally blond hair. The way that Park from Eleanor & Park and Ling from The Diviners have naturally green eyes but apparently completely Asian faces. (Whatever that means.) Never mind that both these features are super recessive and black hair/black eyes are dominant traits. That’s just how #genetics works in novels.
Her Japaneseness is never fully or adequately explored, save for one off-colour comment by an acquaintance that he’d like to see her in a schoolgirl outfit, which is scoffed at but never really called out. Even at 10, I remember feeling uncomfortable. And then it turns out that Kaye is a changeling, and has green skin, and so isn’t even really human at all, much less Japanese (I mean I could read more into this about the alienness ascribed to Asian bodies, but it’s late as I’m typing this up and I’m thinking why bother, I’ll let you guys draw your own conclusions).
So like, meehhhhh on the representation front, right, but it’s so atmospheric. Very industrial North Jersey vibe, but like on the shore. With boardwalks. You couldn’t get more Jersey if you gave a beefed-up dude a spray tan and stuck him in a tank top and had him fist pump at a rager on Point Pleasant. (@ my fellow Jerseyians shhhh I’m one of you). And it was deliciously dark and dangerously fucked up and none of the characters were particularly moral (teaching the youth how to misbehave, these are the #dangers of #reading), and it honestly still is one of the most entertaining novels I’ve read to date. (Tortured romances are 100% my thing. And pining, god the pining.)
This novel is set in the same universe as The Darkest Part of the Forest (Roiben is mentioned by name in that novel), but somehow, despite the darkness inherent to the town in The Darkest Part of the Forest, the court intrigue and Jersey shoreline manage to feel a lot darker and grittier (and I don’t mean this in a pejorative way, I very genuinely enjoyed how Edgy this was, or at least how Edgy it and I both aspired to be) than the fairytale-esque rendering of The Darkest Part of the Forest.
TL;DR do you want to relive your 12 year old self? The one with the black and white striped socks, the dyed green hair, the studded faux-leather bracelet and the black Converse? Do you like dark, doomed romances with weirdly morose and self-involved fae? Do you like girls who treat the world as an enemy? Of course you do! Read Tithe! Do it now! And then hit me up to talk to me about it because it feels very Tam Lin and literally any story with that type of plotline gets! me! pumped!