Book Review: The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

"Nice things don't happen in storybooks. Or when they do happen, something bad happens next. Because otherwise the story would be boring, and no one would read it."

I bought The Cruel Prince with no prior knowledge of the plot - I didn't even read the synopsis or the first few pages before clicking that precious 'Add to Card' button. My only knowledge of this novel was its high ratings on Goodreads.

At the beginning of the novel, twins Jude and Taryn and their older sister, Vivienne live with their parents. Sounds great, right? Of course it's not that simple! Vivi's real father, Madoc, comes crashing into their lives, murdering the girls' parents (right in front of them!) and sweeping them off to Faerieland. Yes, you read that right: faeries! Jude, the narrator, explains at the outset that while Madoc ripped apart their childhood, he seems to love Jude and Taryn, and he treats them like his own.

Jude brings us carefully into her rather precarious situation as a human surrounded by faeries. We learn fairly soon that these creatures are beautiful and incredibly diverse. Like humans have numerous races, cultures, and religions, the faeries in The Cruel Prince have anything from tails to horns to unique skin tones to feet which are backward. Although they are exceptionally beautiful, faeries are also exceptionally dangerous. Jude and Taryn are protected by charms made by servants in their household and by their father's position as the general of the military for the High King. The twins' futures are uncertain as they attempt to navigate the treacherous landscape of the High Court.

The first half of the novel is both interesting and slow. Holly Black paints a sometimes-misty picture of the High Court of Faerie which, at first, felt a bit like a soppy teenage novel with a dash of violence. There's a dalliance between a faerie named Locke and Jude that seems out-of-character for Jude, but soon disintegrates. (If you're anything like me, don't worry, the book gets grim and savage quickly). In fact, it's the first section that keeps this novel from being five stars for me. The last chunk of the story is rife with drama, action, and several delightfully unexpected twists.

While The Cruel Prince has a weakness or two, it swiftly becomes a powerful tale. Black's writing is clear, without flowery and convoluted prose. Honestly, it was nice to be able to read a novel without having to decipher complicated metaphors and long, winding descriptions of nonsense. Black is straightforward and allows her characters to drive the novel. And speaking of characters, I had no idea that Jude would be so unforgettable! Jude is the perfectly imperfect protagonist; she is vicious and vulnerable in equal measure and these characteristics don't intentionally balance each other out. Jude is relentless, and her childhood underneath the tutelage of her parents' murderer helps to construct a masterfully complex character. It's wonderful to interact with Jude: multifaceted without being consistent. She's very human, very real.

The shining star of this novel is the tainted relationship between Cardan, the youngest prince, and Jude. Some of Jude's actions may be reprehensible, but Cardan is just nasty. There's no way readers should conceivably like him, and yet, he's so charming. Cardan reminded me of Severus Snap from Harry Potter: there are these little glimmers of hope that pave the way for Cardan's redemption, then, it's all dashed aside because his true nature wins out again and again.

"Have I told you how hideous you look tonight?" Cardan asks, leaning back in the elaborately carved chair, the warmth of his words turning the question into something like a compliment.

"No," I say, glad to be annoyed back into the present. "Tell me."

I highly recommend this novel to readers of modern fantasy, faeries, drama, and/or political intrigue. Holly Black has found herself a new fan of faeries!

My rating: