An author of science fiction or fantasy has one difficult decision to make before they set their fingers on a keyboard: How much does my protagonist know about their world?
Nailing down this question steers the tone and trajectory of the story in a big way. Would Harry Potter be as resonant a character if he was already comfortable in the magical world? Not necessarily. Part of the reader’s immediate reaction to Harry is through a shared sense of alienation and discomfort. This is a very useful starting point to open the story, especially when the main character is a child.
At the same time, a lot of great fiction starts with a character at ease in their environment, however strange it may seem. This allows the reader to slowly catch up to the rules and challenges of their new environment, and approaches world-building from the opposite side of the game board.
My point of contention with Holly Black’s Tithe is that I’m not sure where the main character stands on this question. Kaye Fierch is an unmotivated teenager whose life intersects with the immortal and magical creatures of Faerie. In the course of her childhood, she interacted with a handful of creatures from the magical world on a semi-regular basis. This meant that when she ran across some Faerie folk as a teenager, she felt a mixture of recognition and ignorance. Recognition because she already knew that Faerie existed, ignorance because she didn’t seem to know how their world or culture worked.
Bringing that temperament to the beginning of the book makes the reveal of Faerie a lackluster one. Since the protagonist is so easily able to accept the existence of magical forces, the reveal translates to the reader without any feeling of actual enchantment, mystery, scope, age, or any other characteristic you could attribute to a timeless civilization.
This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but Kaye’s perspective seems inconsistent and disorienting. She name-drops her childhood Faerie friends as if the reader was already familiar with them. I actually went to Wikipedia to make sure I was reading the first novel in the series and not the second, because I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d missed something. It’s a similar sensation to hanging out with friends who went on a long road trip without you. Every other word is an inside joke, full of references that make no sense to the uninitiated.
At the same time, Kaye approaches the Faerie without any understanding of its rules or limiations. This forced me to constantly ask myself: How much does Kaye know? I still don’t have an answer. Knowing the limitations of a character’s knowledge is essential to a reader’s ability to stay in that character’s shoes.
I previously called Kaye unmotivated because I’m not sure what she wanted out of the story. Kaye is a changeling (not a spoiler if it’s in the synopsis) who despises her human family. So when she discovers her Faerie nature, the sense of separation from her family and peers is emotionally dampened. She lost nothing by losing her humanity. She lacks any sense of internal conflict over her nature. I can’t help but feel the author made the human-to-Faerie transition easier for Kaye by giving her such a wretched home life. She experienced an overnight transformation of species as seamlessly as if she’d changed from slacks to jeans.
The reasoning behind her changeling nature and how it intersected with the plot is also extremely convoluted. Kaye launches into a Dumbledore/Columbo speech that attempts to tie the plot in a neat bow, but much of the intricacy was lost in her logistical labyrinth.
All of that said, the author has enough lines of quality prose that I’m genuinely curious to see if her subsequent works resonate better than Tithe.
Have you read Tithe? What did you think of it?