The Cruel Prince by Holly Black is another one of those books that had a clever publicity team behind it. I saw this book everywhere when it was released, from appearing in book-box reveals, to Instagram and YouTube haul and TBR videos. The book blogging community was buzzing about this book, which is another take on the faerie YA sub-genre.
Let me start by saying that when I read this book I had not yet read ACOTAR, so the whole faerie thing was new to me, and I’m not sure whether that was a good or bad thing. I had also seen some of my favourite BookTubers say they liked this book, while others said they hated it, so I went in cautious, but with an open mind. I’m glad I did as it turns out that I didn’t agree with some of the negative things that were being said, and I ended up really liking The Cruel Prince.
The Cruel Prince is the story of Jude, who along with her two sisters, after the murder of their parents is taken to live in Faerie and tormented by the youngest son of the king. Jude wants to be treated as an equal and serve in the King’s guard, her sister Taryn wants to fall in love with a faerie, and their older sister Vivi (who is half faerie herself) couldn’t give a shit about Faerie and wants to go back to the human world. The three sisters live with Madoc, a general in the King’s army who murdered their parents, but he swears to protect them and he ends up loving them in his own way.
As I said, I loved this book, so let’s start with the negatives.
Firstly, I felt like a fish-out-of water with the faerie stuff. So many things were not explained and I ended up confused and totally lost in the world building, and not in a good way. My main gripe is that it just isn’t clear how all the humanoids and creatures fit together in a social structure, plus they are all called faeries! Had I read ACOTAR first, I may have had more of a grip on how the High Fae and lesser faeries (terms from ACOTAR) fit together, but you shouldn’t have to read someone else’s book to understand what is going on. The names of the creature faeries and some minor details weren’t enough for me to be able to picture them in my mind. Often I had no idea what the creatures looked like.
My second, but related point is all the faerie law that I also know nothing about but the book seems to assume everyone should know. Salting the food, not eating faerie fruit or drinking the wine, dancing you cannot break free from, faeries can’t lie, etc. It’s not enough to say everyone knows; I don’t know and I was left scratching my head wondering where all these laws came from that weren’t properly explained. If you are a faerie aficionado, these details might be familiar, and not an issue at all.
Not a criticism, but a style choice I’m not totally on board with is telling the story in present tense. I’m not sure why, but I just find past tense easier to make sense on. Perhaps it comes down to practice, and simply getting used to reading in the present, which shouldn’t be a problem as I’ve noticed a lot more books I’m picking up are told in first person present tense perspective.
Ok, let’s move onto the good stuff.
One of the main issues I saw in regards to this book was with the protagonist, Jude. I keep hearing that she portrays herself (or is portrayed) as being badass and brutal but we don’t see any evidence of it. Firstly, I don’t think she comes across as seeing herself like that at all, and I don’t think Holly makes her out to be a warrior either. Jude wants to be a fighter, but she learns pretty quickly that she has other skills that are far more valuable in achieving her ultimate end of serving the king. Her motives match up with her experience and personality, and she’s intelligent and mostly restrained. Everyone makes questionable choices and loses their cool every now and again, so why shouldn’t she?
It is true that Taryn and Vivi (and even more so their faerie brother, Oak) are side characters who serve to drive the plot and motivations for Jude, but this is Jude’s story, and it’s her interactions with Cardan, the aptly named cruel prince, that form the central plot. I wasn’t left wanting more from the sisters; Jude saw them as somewhat of a distraction and so they were on the periphery, which was fine with me. The sub-plot with Taryn and her mysterious lover was a bit obvious and seemed unnecessary, but Cardan obviously delighted in torturing Jude, and it would be unreasonable to think his actions weren’t just for the fun of it, at times.
Another bugbear of some reviewers, that I don’t understand, is the actions of Cardan, and his uneasy alliance with Jude in the later parts of the book. He was an ass, treating Jude and Taryn like shit, and although we found out what motivated him to be so cruel, Jude didn’t let him off the hook. In fact, she didn’t let her pity for him show at all, making the deal with him only to further her own plans. If a relationship between the two of them comes to pass in the next book, I won’t be mad about it.
The main strength of The Cruel Prince is in the second half of the book when the mystery is laid out and we, along with Jude, are trying to figure it out before all hell breaks loose. What makes this work so well is the absolutely fantastic foreshadowing.
“Nice things don’t happen in storybooks,” Taryn says. “Or when they do happen, something bad happens next. Because otherwise the story would be boring and no one would read it.”
Like all good mysteries, the big reveal at the end is so damn satisfying due to all the subtle hints and clues left along the way. I was truly surprised by the ending, and think I audibly gasped as I was reading. If I had been on the fence about this book, with all the faerie stuff I didn’t understand, the ending sold me on it, and definitely bumped my rating up another star.
I absolutely love seeing all the threads of a mystery come together, and this book gave me that, while also leaving the story open to continuing in the next book. I can’t wait to see what happens next. I’m giving The Cruel Prince 4 stars.