My first experience of Holly Black was her novel Valiant, which I read when I was perhaps thirteen or fourteen, and which awoke a love of urban fantasy and faerie stories that has lasted to this day. She’s a writer who captures excellently the fact that Fae are dangerous. From making you dance until you die, to swapping out human children for sickly faerie infants, they have always been creatures to be feared and respected. Fairies of old won’t grant your wishes, they’ll curse you and your bloodline until the end of time. If there’s one thing you should know about faeries it’s this: they’re often dicks.
So Black’s Faerie court, with its political backstabbing, human servants and deceptions veiled behind the clever wordplay of a species who cannot lie, is one that honours this tremendously well.
The story is told from the view of a human changeling, Jude, who was taken to Faerie alongside her sisters after her mother’s ex-husband – dangerous Faerie general Madoc – murders her parents and through this bloodshed instantly establishes the consequences of underestimating or betraying the Fae. Twins Jude and Taryn, though human, are raised alongside their half-sister Vivienne and the other children of Fae courtiers, trained in sword fighting and the history of Faerie all while wearing necklaces of berries to resist glamours and salting their food to avoid accidental enchantment. Acutely aware of her own fragility as mortal, and her precarious position in the court as a human changeling, Jude seeks a position as a knight to secure her place in Faerie and earn her the respect she is denied – especially by the youngest prince, Cardan, who seems determined to drive her out of Faerie. Surrounded by magic and power, threatened, taunted and beaten by those who wish her gone, Jude wishes not only to be equal to her Fae counterparts but to better them. There is to be a new King on the throne of Faerie soon, and seeing an opportunity for change, Jude throws herself into a world of spies, murder and oaths of unbreakable loyalty.
The courts are a sprawling mass of groups all loyal either to the crown or to themselves, each with their own agenda for power – and with multiple heirs vying for the throne, Faerie seems to ripple with threat and uncertainty. Black keeps us constantly on our toes, second guessing our assumptions as Jude uncovers more of the secrets the royal family would prefer to keep hidden, and fights to uncover those of her own twin sister, Taryn, who is both unwilling to join in Jude’s quest for vengeance against Cardan and his cronies and is hiding her own interests from all she knows. It would have been nice to see a little more of Taryn and Jude as twins, as this was only really brought up when they needed to be directly compared as being identical. The relationship between two siblings raised in a foreign world by the man who murdered their parents in front of them was one which I feel could have been explored in a little more depth. Jude is an interesting character driven by pride and ambition, we sympathise with her while we are aware of her faults and her conflict over loving Madoc despite what he’s done creates an interesting dynamic between the two of them. By comparison, Taryn’s characterisation seems a little lacking. Her sole interest is marrying a Faerie lord – the identity of whom is hidden from us but is also relatively easy to guess at in hindsight, though Black is very good at keeping us guessing about other elements of the story. Still, her main goal is marriage, in the land of Faerie that’s all she could aspire to.
You grow up in a magical world and the only interesting thing is the men? Really? Most of them are questionable at best.
The description in this book is beautiful, I loved the variations in how Fae look, act, talk and move through this magical world, the golden faerie fruits and poisons growing by nixie-infested rivers. You simultaneously want to live in this beautiful, opulent, extravagant world and want to never, ever go there because you would probably die painfully – whether that happened before or after a lifetime of brainwashed servitude is up for debate. I’m a very visual reader, I love a story that can suck me in and really make me see where it’s set, and The Cruel Prince has that down perfectly. From the mirror lake that shows a reflection not your own to the dust-covered rooms of long-dead courtiers, Black pulls the reader into this exquisite realm and keeps you there just long enough to realise that the beautiful flowers are poisonous, and that the smiles are just dangerously bared teeth.
I cannot wait for the next instalment of the series, and I still can’t fully decide who I liked and didn’t like in this one – Fae are slippery like that, for people who can’t lie they’re exceptionally untrustworthy – which I think is rather the point. All of the princes are cruel in their own way, and Black’s ability to make you second-guess the motives and actions of her characters is very good indeed. She presents us with a mesmerising world that exists alongside our own, and leaves us with the impression that while one should never underestimate a Faerie, someone should probably have told them not to underestimate the tenaciousness of a human being with a grudge. After all, you don’t need to live forever to be dangerous.
Overall rating: 📖📖📖📖📖 5 books out of 5