The Cruel Prince by Holly Black – Book Review

Seven-year-old Jude led a normal life, until one day, unannounced, the mysterious Madoc appears at her doorstep. Her life changes in an instant, as Madoc brutally murders her parents and kidnaps Jude and her sisters to live with him amongst the High Fae in Elfhame, a magical and unfamiliar land populated by Faeries. Immortal, beautiful and incapable of lying, they see Jude and her twin, Taryn, as weak and inferior, and don’t let them forget it through unrelenting bullying and exploitation.

At age seventeen, Jude desperately wants to fit in, fight alongside them, and to be equals, but the youngest prince, Cardan, will seemingly stop at nothing to make sure that these things don’t happen. When she sees that there is more to the High Court than meets the eye, she becomes embroiled in the conspiracies, betrayal and espionage that cuts below the surface of faerie politics. Determined and incisive, Jude must make sacrifices to protect the world she has been thrust into, her family, and Elfhame.

The Cruel Prince and the rest of The Folk of The Air trilogy are without a doubt some of the most discussed and loved Young Adult Fiction books in the online book community – held in high regard like books by Sarah J. Maas and Leigh Bardugo, they pop up on my feed on a regular basis, so I decided it was time to find out what the hype was all about.

A quick heads up to start off with – there’s a fair bit of violence in this novel, so if that’s not for you, I’d skip this one.

The characters are incredibly well developed – there is so much variation between Jude, her identical twin Taryn, and their older sister Vivi. Each of them has unique goals in Elfhame – Jude wants to earn her place amongst the nobility as a knight, constantly trying to show these magical and stronger creatures that she is worthy, while Taryn tries to make compromises and avoid trouble. Vivi, on the other hand, travels to the human world, living a double life with her girlfriend Heather. No character is perfect, they all have flaws, and no one is wholly likable, but they all have clear and distinct things that they want, which for me are key components of complex characters.

The entirety of the book is from Jude’s perspective – as the title is The Cruel Prince, I was expecting there to be some alternating POVs between Jude and the said Cruel Prince. However, Black portrays character dynamics and characteristics so well without Cardan’s perspective, and even without hearing from his internal discourse we get a strong sense of his motives and emotions.

Sometimes, when I start reading YA fantasy novels, there’s a period of around a hundred pages or so when I have absolutely no clue what is going on – I’m trying to get my head around the new world that the author has created and it’s boundaries, all while I’m keeping track of all the different characters. With The Cruel Prince, however, the story’s background is outlined in the prologue, helping to set up the book well, and the introduction to the world doesn’t feel like an information overload. Details are given in a way that gradually breaks you in to the story. The descriptions of small details such as character’s outfits, food and the magical creatures are deftly weaved into the story to help us picture Elfhame as a fantastical but deeply dangerous place.

The main thing that irked me was the telling-not-showing of Jude’s sword skills. She enters this tournament and tells us she wants to be a knight, but there’s little description of her actually being able to fight well. Also, Jude seems to see Madoc in a father role and respects him, which doesn’t feel right, especially after what he did to her parents. There seems to be a trend in YA (particularly in the books that I’ve been reading recently) where the main character (usually a girl) seems to completely forgive/forget a character (usually male) who kidnaps them or treats them badly. This can sometimes be seen in the enemies-to-lovers trope, and it’s starting to frustrate me – there are other ways to make a male lead compelling or a relationship complex, but I worry it’s setting an unnerving precedent that it’s OK to forget about how people have treated you in the past.

This isn’t really an action-led book, which didn’t bother me, but instead, it’s led by deception, betrayal, and the general politics of the High Faerie Court, with little romance. I really liked this mix, and I was genuinely invested in the political bit as I tried to map out the alliances and the lies in my head as I read the book.

I progressed through the first half of the book at a steady pace – I was enjoying it, sure, but when the first major twist happened in the story, I began to devour The Cruel Prince. With this first unexpected plot twist, the author sets the precedent for curveballs in the rest of the book, and I had to race through.

I’m currently on the waiting list for The Wicked King, the next book in the series, at my library, so as soon as I get to the front of the queue I’ll be picking it up! Have you read The Cruel Prince? What did you think?

Star rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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