In my personal experience, there are two kinds of Holly Black books: the ones I like and the ones I don’t. And the whys and wherefores of which book will be which are not always obvious. I bounced hard off of the Tithe series but love The Darkest Part of the Forest, for examples. The Cruel Prince is by and large the kind of Holly Black book that I do like; it’s spikey and vivid and brilliant and full of interesting tensions between characters.
One of the strengths of this book is the relationship between Jude, the narrator and main character, and her sisters. I’m very much a fan of books about sisters and female friends, so any story with that theme is generally a draw for me. Here, Black gives us a complicated and sometimes tense history between Jude, Taryn, and Vivi. All three sisters have their own goals and agendas, and they intersect and conflict with each other in a way I found believable and effective.
I also really loved the details of this fairyland; I’ve said before, I think, that I’m most interested in fairylands which are all about what is dangerous and beautiful woven together, fairies who convincingly don’t think or react in human ways. Black delivers on that here, with details of the customs that are ancient but not unchanging, political minefields that Jude can only half-see because, as she remembers and reminds us throughout the story, she doesn’t belong here. At the same time, there’s a beauty to the descriptions of the food, clothes, and the society that help sell Jude’s fascination with the fairies and her desire to be part of their world.
That fascination and ambition drive the plot of the book, as Jude attempts in to earn her place in fairy society in several different ways. I really liked how ambitious she’s allowed to be, and while the story doesn’t exactly reward that, she’s also not punished for it. Too often female main characters are only allowed to want things to a certain degree, whereas here the conflict comes in large part because other characters also have their own goals and ambitions that don’t sit easily with Jude’s. I also really liked how she cares about her sisters but doesn’t necessarily change her course of action based on that care.
There is a big old However looming here, and that is Carden. I’m simply less and less interested in this kind of male character, in the guy whose cruelties are waved away because of his own pain. This goes double when there’s any question of his being the love interest. Black treads a really fine line here and does it semi-successfully–I did not throw the book across the room, and I will most likely read the next one. But that’s in spite of Carden, not because of him. (I do want to acknowledge that I’m not a teen reader, but I also feel like modelling healthy masculinity is important in teen books? And also that we do teen girls a disservice by assuming that they’ll only be interested in jerks? I don’t know; I went back and forth on this point a lot.)
So, The Cruel Prince: fascinating world, surprising twists and turns, and mostly compelling characters, with a few points where I remain Dubious.