Title: The Cruel Prince
Author: Holly Black
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Page Count: 370
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Notable Notables: Everything. Writing, characters, plot, the works.
Recommended Readers: You like revenge, right? Everyone likes revenge.
I had a lot of expectations for The Cruel Prince. This book looked at them, sneered at their paltry designs, burned them to the ground, and then built from the ashes something so inconceivably better that all I can do is sit here and go
If you’ve been keeping up with me, you’ll know this was one of my most anticipated books releasing in January, if not the most anticipated. And it did not disappoint! I have been in mental and emotional turmoil since I finished it, I don’t even know what to do.
Okay, let’s hit the plot really quickly. Jude has grown up in Faerie with her twin sister Taryn and her half-fey sister Vivienne ever since Madoc, Vivi’s redcap father, killed her parents and took all of them in. Jude’s always known that, as a mortal, she is mostly powerless against the fey and their whims. She hates them and strives to be better than them while also wishing that she could be like them. The faerie she hates the most is Prince Cardan, particularly since she and Taryn are often the targets of his cruelty.
Jude wants to achieve knighthood so she will finally belong in Faerie and achieve a station higher than her mortal blood would typically allow for. But best laid plans often go awry, especially when she is approached by Prince Dain to work for him. Jude knows the job is dangerous, but it could also lead to power, enough that she will never be under anyone else’s ever again.
The Cruel Prince is dark and lush, as grounded in modernity as it is in a rich, fantasy tapestry completely of Holly Black’s own making. She has such a talent of bringing real life to an imaginary setting, and that’s even without the brief trips to Maine the sisters take. Fans of her Modern Faerie Tales series and The Darkest Part of the Forest will also see some familiar names here as she introduces new characters and a new slice of Faerie.
Even though the book is titled The Cruel Prince, pretty much every fey is cruel, vengeful, and terrible in their own beautiful ways. Though Madoc tries to do right by Jude and her sisters, his nature is one of war and blood. Dain is cold and doesn’t flinch at either political machinations or the pain necessary to make them succeed. Valerian thrives on violence, and Prince Balekin is a brute who cares nothing for humanity and even some members of his family. Locke, meanwhile, is a puppet master, concerned with ends rather than the means he takes to achieve them. As for Cardan, the titular character, well…
Let’s actually talk about Jude first.
Jude is a straight-up gangsta. She is also my heart. She is so determined to never be a victim of faeries again that she chases any means necessary in order to achieve her goal. She, herself, is cruel and exacting; she’s self-serving, power-hungry, determined, and if she’s going down, you’re going down with her. She also wants to protect her sisters and for them to be happy. She wants to protect herself and make sure no one ever has the power to hurt her. She messes up, she makes mistakes, she’s smart, she makes the right choices for both the right and wrong reasons. She knows herself so wholeheartedly one moment and then has to question herself and her aims the next depending on what new thing she’s learned.
She is so beautifully and wonderfully morally gray I could cry. She is complicated and fascinating, and I could be in her head all day. Throughout the events of the book, I just became more and more proud of her, especially after she blindsided me. I love her so much!
What could I become if I stopped worrying about death, about pain, about anything? If I stopped trying to belong? Instead of being afraid, I could become something to fear.
Cardan, meanwhile, is a character I did not like at the start. My journey getting to know him, though, has been fun; Jude would not sympathize.
At first, I wasn’t impressed with Cardan. This was supposed to be the cruel prince? He was more of a privileged bully I couldn’t take seriously at first, but the further I read, the more I glimpsed the hidden depths to his character and the chasms of his flaws. The truth of the matter is he’s terrible in that he is an absolute mess, and wow, I love him for that??
The scene that made me change my opinion of him was the one with Balekin. Now that guy is a straight up dick. I really felt for Cardan because, y’know, just because you’re born into privilege doesn’t mean you can’t have a shit life. None of this redeems him, though, nor does the novel make a case for it or have Jude accept it. Rather, it merely fleshes out Cardan’s character into something more understandable while never shying away from brutal honesty. In a sea of terrible people, Cardan is also not a good person. He’s spoiled, willfully mean, and his choices belong solely to him, especially the ones he knew were awful and went too far.
He was ultimately a foil for Jude because, while Jude actively tries to change her fate, Cardan more or less does nothing but weather the storm, hoping things will improve with time. He’s much more passive as a character. Though he’s also morally gray and selfish, unlike Jude, he lacks ambition, has a skewed sense of vengeance, and is super great at getting wasted. And that hate boner! He went from being a character I didn’t care for to being one of my favorites. He’s just such a mess! And he had some of the best lines. I can’t wait to see where his character goes.
Not to mention, his and Jude’s rivalry/partnership/power dynamic/hate romance is prime time entertainment. They’re gonna make each other’s lives so difficult, and I am just like
As I think that, Cardan’s smile turns into a more familiar sneer. “Oh, really? I don’t know about being angry? I don’t know about being afraid? You’re not the one bargaining for your life.”
I’m going to cover the other characters a bit more briefly. In case you haven’t noticed, “complicated” and “morally gray” are the descriptive words of the day, and they almost unanimously apply to each of these characters.
Madoc is kind of what I imagine Ganondorf from Legend of Zelda would be like as a father. He’s not super great at it and is emotionally distant, but he’ll provide all the necessities and nice things you could want and teach you swordplay and try to help you make your way in the world. He will also stand aside and let you royally mess up and y’know, maybe even kill you if it comes right down to it.
I have a lot of mixed feelings for him, but I’m comfortable with that. He’s a well-written character, strategy-minded as well as savage enough to get the job done.
Vivi is great, so contrary and difficult. I love how she clashes with Madoc and sides with her sisters, even when they’re being crazy in her eyes. Even though she’s half-fey, she’s also more favorable towards humans (and acts more human) than either Jude or Taryn who have accepted Faerie as their home, for better or worse. Also, she’s gay (possibly bisexual) and in a relationship with a human girl. I hope things work out for her and that we see a lot more of her in the sequel.
As for the third sister, Taryn…
Oh, Taryn, Taryn.
I have extremely mixed feelings for her, and I’m not feeling too positive about those. I’m wondering how much of her actions pertain to the “forsake my sister” oath she had to make and how much of it was her own choosing. (Though, she is letting a faerie boy come in between her and Jude in a complete breach of sisters before misters, no doubt about that. So dirty.) I do feel bad for her, but not enough to avoid being exasperated with her. Not when I love Jude worlds more than I do her, but perhaps future books will change that.
I think, like Cardan, she suffers from being passive and wanting to bow her head to her oppressors, stick to the status quo, and hope things will work out. The difference is she’s letting herself get used by people she knows full well she shouldn’t be trusting. She’s had the same upbringing and been in some of the same situations Jude has, but she’s taking the path of least resistance. It’s a good reminder of how sisters, even twins, are intrinsically different and will react to things in massively different ways. Still, though…
Talking about Taryn and Jude naturally leads me to Locke.
HOO BOY, LOCKE.
I knew from the start he couldn’t be trusted. I knew it, there’s no avoiding it. But he is 1,000% trickster fey with honeyed words, secret smiles, and devious plotting, and if that’s not my Type, I don’t know what is.
So I guess that makes me more like Taryn than Jude in that respect… Oh, well, we all have our faults. I’m looking forward to seeing how Locke’s role evolves in future books and how he’ll change (or not) and get everything he deserves.
Right now, he exists to stir shit up and has the audacity to do so with charm and class, doing what he pleases just to see what will happen, just to be able to boast later that, yeah, he did that. For the laughs.
Until he gets bored and moves on.
Any more questions about Locke’s character can be summed up with these two frisky bird boys:
Oriana and Oak also have bigger roles to play, I feel, but their full extent won’t be known until further down the line. Oriana I could take or leave, but I am so incredibly worried for Oak. I’m fond of the fey kid, and he just became a huge person of interest in all the worst ways for all of Jude’s enemies.
And the only thing I’ll say about Dain, whom I had such a problematic thing for, and Valerian is wow, I wasn’t expecting that!
It’s a true testament of skill and irony, too, that only two characters in this book can actually tell a lie, and yet everybody got their ass betrayed. Incredible.
If you have any doubts about this series, I encourage you to set them aside. From the writing to the characters, there’s so much going on with this first book alone. It’s intricate without being mired in details. It’s poignant and ruthless but also deeply considerate of how complicated people are. It shows how our perceptions alter everything, how make or break ambitions and power can be, and how survival can force you to make the worst decisions but also give you the strength to power through.
The Cruel Prince shows you the good and the bad and allows you to take them as they are. It gives you the temptation to be the villain but the fortitude to be the hero.
Even if, at the beginning, that distinction isn’t yet clear.