The Cruel Prince is the first of a fresh trilogy from lauded young adult author Holly Black. Raised in faerie as Gentry by her adoptive father though she herself is mortal, Jude is on the cusp of adulthood and has lost her patience for powerlessness. Her sister Taryn has decided to wed into the Court; Jude, on the other hand, has set out to become a knight. However, these plans fall afoul of the continual and deadly intrigues of the High Court of Faerie—prompting both sisters in different directions and Jude, our protagonist, onto a dangerously ambitious path of connection to the crown.
Magic is a constant in all of Black’s novels, particular the sort of magic that leads to ethical difficulties and hard decisions. Faeries and fey courts also feature frequently. However, this novel marries and then evolves these previous themes in a startling, lush, fast-paced tale of one young woman finding her place on an ever-changing, unpredictable political field. There’s a raw, honest approach to the concept of power—who has it, who doesn’t, how to get it—that is central to the novel and gives it a refreshingly unique perspective.
The Cruel Prince approaches the platonic ideal of a coming-of-age novel set in faerie, for me. It is handsome and lyrical and utterly brutal, unafraid of the monstrousness required of its protagonist and her companions, and willing to produce a plethora of beautiful corpses where it needs to. There is a frankness to the constant cruelty of faerie that is supported, not undermined, by its wonders and possibilities. Black isn’t aiming for “grimdark,” to pull that term out of storage, and the balance between the squabbles of sisters with the blush of youthful romantic intrigue with the innate horror of vastly uneven power dynamics helps her achieve realism rather than performative meanness.
The result is a novel that, despite its tricks and turns, feels delightfully honest. It is centered on its own complex and critical ethical framework, rather than the kind of ethical framework we might expect from a young adult novel about faeries. For Jude, murder is occasionally the right option; however, she still has to deal with the trauma and consequences of committing that murder. She is the child of a redcap general, raised in blood and intrigue, and it would be foolish to expect her morals to be the same as a kid who grew up in the suburbs in Jersey. But she does have a firm sense of ethics, and that’s a real source of delight for me as a reader: the book is aware of its cruelties and does not flinch from exploring the consequences of right and wrong, or both/neither.
In some ways The Cruel Prince feels like a natural evolution after The Curse Workers series, which I also loved for its nontraditional approach to ethics, families, and survival. Holly Black has a habit—one that I adore—of digging deep into the interior worlds of her protagonists and refusing to make them simple or easy. For example, Cardan is not redeemed for his abuses of Jude solely because he himself is being abused by his brother. Jude rejects that thought outright, though she does add it to her understanding of him. There are no simple answers in faerie, and no goodness, just an attempt to live rightly and as fairly as possible.
That’s a philosophy that appeals to me, as it strikes a balance between acknowledging the occasional awfulness of ambition and survival without foundering in the pit of despair or wallowing in cruelty. Jude and Cardan have a fascinating push-pull dynamic that I cannot wait to continue to explore. The same is true for Jude and her faerie parents, Jude and Taryn, Jude and Vivi, and more. Black has created a staggering amount of fraught interpersonal relationships and written her path around the obvious answers in each and every instance. The stepmother who seems untrusting and cold has a specific and understandable reason that our teenage protagonist was utterly unaware of. The adoptive father who murdered her parents is also her own father by right, and has raised her to his hand, which she uses as he would’ve in her position. The prince whom she pledged her loyalty to initially was the murderer of her first romantic dalliance’s mother—and that boy, Locke, was playing her and her sister all along.
Nothing is simple, but watching Jude come to terms with her own skills, her own interests, and her own trauma had me riveted. Cardan, too, intrigues me, particularly the fact that he is now sworn in service to Jude and must obey her (a hell of a power dynamic flip, there). She is also embracing, as Madoc explained to her, that resisting her nature would cause her more distress than accepting and learning it. A part of me wants to make a contrast of sorts between this and Sarah Reese Brennan’s In Other Lands: in that novel, I praised the fact that the protagonist was a clever, petite, slightly bitchy bisexual boy who had no skill for combat but used his words and brain to create his kingdom. We don’t see that sort of thing often. In this case, I’m praising the opposite, because it’s also done with such depth and vigorous thoughtfulness outside the usual mold for these types of stories. Jude is a strategist, a warrior, and a killer. She is afraid and she is full of rage and she is willing, at whatever costs she must pay, to rise with her ambition to the highest seat of safety available to her while also salvaging the mortal/faerie realms’ balance.
And that seat of relative security, of course, is found standing behind the king she’s crowned.
The close of the novel gave me such a thrill, and it’s not often I find myself desperate for the next piece of a tale quite like I was here. Black has hit it out of the park. The world of faerie is also, it’s worth noting, queer without special comment on that fact. Vivi is in love with a human girl, Heather, whom she intends to run off and make her life with. The Gentry all take lovers of various genders. While it’s a small thing, it adds to the realism of the world, this unremarkable acceptance of sexuality, gender, and attraction. So for readers who appreciate ethical quandaries, dangerous court politics, magic and murder, and romance as complicated and weird as the faerie themselves, I recommend The Cruel Prince without reservation.
The Cruel Prince is available from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.