Review: The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

The Cruel Prince is the much-anticipated maiden novel of acclaimed American young adult author Holly Black’s latest fantasy trilogy. Having read and very much enjoyed the magic and musings on morality present in Black’s previous YA works, The Cruel Prince was high on my must reads of 2018. Set in the cruel, deceptive and xenophobic land of the Faerie, the narrative centres on mortal (yet still butt-kicking) protagonist Jude Duarte, who has been raised amongst the gentry since childhood by an adoptive father that murdered her biological parents in cold blood in order to steal her and her two sisters away from the mortal world to the unforgiving lands of the beautiful, immortal faerie.

Within the first couple of chapters, we learn that adolescent Jude is on the cusp of womanhood and desperately frustrated with the ‘falsities’ of the hyper-realistic, overly vivid world around her and the people, attitudes and values that inhabit it, and even more fed up of her powerless, mortal position within it. Jude is the obvious outsider, the obvious lone-wolf of the piece – independent and fiercely forward thinking. Where Jude’s twin sister Taryn – also mortal – has made it her ambition to settle down and marry high within the Royal Court, Jude’s ambition is to become a knight, a famed and feared warrior. Despite being a highly capable fighter, Jude’s ambition and vision for her future is constantly thwarted by both those around her and the continual schemes and intrigues of the Royal Court, schemes which break the bond of the two sisters – pushing them in opposite directions – and thrust Jude into a dangerous dance with a certain eponymous cruel prince and his wicked, twisted ruling family.

My favourite aspect of The Cruel Prince is unquestionably the beautifully intricate world-building and the subversion of common fantasy tropes that are essential to it. Most fantasy and YA reincarnations of the Fae or Faerie cliché present as a fantastical, impossibly saccharine worlds of innocent wonder, inhabited by beautiful lords eager for romance and chivalry. In Black’s gritter, more realistic version, the world of the Faerie is a juxtaposition of wondrous settings and sickening vengeance and superficially beautiful creates rotten from the self-serving cruelty that burns in their core. The Cruel Prince is no fairy tale; it is a dark story, a story that stabs you in the back, a story where opposing states of power, ambition and questionable morality fuel the narrative. Indeed, for hard-headed and self sufficient Jude, YA plot-points such as romance and boys are little more than afterthoughts or ways to kill time, which makes for incredible reading as she manoeuvres in a world hell-bent on diminishing her femininity and its worth. The Cruel Prince wastes absolutely no time in establishing itself as a novel centring around a young woman fighting tooth and nail for supremacy of her own story; not, as you might expect, for her own freedom or love, but for her gradual transformation into a powerhouse of control and supremacy. Jude becomes a schemer, a strategist, and a killer. Rage-filled and well-learned, Jude is a rare type of character in fiction; a woman who is ready and able to rise to her heroic ambition at whatever cost, personal or public. For this reason, Jude is one of my favourite on-page females I’ve encountered recently.

The Cruel Prince is a fascinating and surprising read, aware and preoccupied with the questions of its own complex and cynical ethics and character development, one that is in stark contrast to what a reader might usually discover in a YA story centring on a young mortal woman surrounded by faeries. In a novel of self-serving characters, our protagonist is no better. Jude is a child of her upbringing as the adoptive daughter of a brutal, bloodthirsty general and raised amongst his schemes. For her, murder can sometimes be the right – and the only – option, and she cannot be expected to have the same surface morals as girls her age in the mortal world. She even muses at one point that if: “I love my parent’s murderer, I suppose I could love anyone.” But that inherent sense of humanity, that compassionate, mortal side of her, is still present and often throws curve-balls her way. Indeed, that is The Cruel Prince‘s greatest victory; it is keenly aware of both its cynicism and its kindness, and doesn’t bias one or the other when it explores ideas of right and wrong

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