Tag Archives: Holly Black

The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

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.

Other reviews of The Cruel Prince:
The Book Smugglers
Emma @ Miss Print
Rachel Pfeiffer @ The Young Folks

Other Holly Black reviews here:
The Darkest Part of the Forest
The Iron Trial
Doll Bones
White Cat
Red Glove

Previously:
The Changeover by Margaret Mahy (2011)
Ursula Le Guin Reading Notes: Voices

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Not the Chosen One

I’m always interested in tropes and the way authors play with them. At this point, the Chosen One trope has become both a huge cultural force and almost a parody of itself. Sometimes an author will choose to engage with it, but in a way that’s a little bit different. Maybe the story is narrated by someone close to the Chosen One, maybe the person who thought they were chosen isn’t. Because I don’t want to spoil the books below, I’m not saying exactly how they reflect this, but they do in some form. And I’d love to hear if you have a favorite I’ve missed!

White Cat by Holly Black
The Impostor Queen by Sarah Fine
The Lost Conspiracy by Frances Hardinge
The Story of Owen/Prairie Fire by E.K. Johnston
Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn
UnLunDun by China Mieville
The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon

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Out of the woods: books set in forests

I’m not entirely sure why forests are such a powerful setting and symbol in fantasy. Maybe it’s something to do with fairy tales, maybe something to do with how much of the land we now inhabit was once covered with vast acres of trees. Regardless, I love books that have forests as a main setting and I wanted to highlight some of them. They might engage with the mythology of forests in different ways, but they’re all playing with that sense of magic and danger.

out of the woods

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black: The forest that Hazel and Ben enter plays a major part in this haunting book.

The Jinx trilogy by Sage Blackwood: The Jinx trilogy is almost entirely set in the Urwald, a magical forest that’s full of danger and secrets.

Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow: In Otter’s world any shadow can hold one of the deadly White Hands, and so the forest that surrounds her home is both beautiful and terrifying.

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll: Carroll draws on fairy tale influences to weave her extremely creepy story of a girl who goes out into the dark woods.

The Ordinary Princess by M.M. Kaye: The forest in this book is more benign than many of the others I’m featuring here, but it’s extremely delightful.

Some Kind of Happiness by Claire LeGrand: Finley’s semi-imagined forest, the Everwood, drives a lot of this book, as well as being the place Finley feels the safest.

In the Forests of Serre (and several others) by Patricia McKillip: McKillip loves to write about forests, and she often does so with a sense of the edges where they turn magical.

Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne: Like the woods in The Ordinary Princess, The Hundred-Acre Woods are more benign than most of these stories. It’s still a magical and enchanting land.

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater: A magical forest where the trees speak Latin and time is out of joint should definitely be on this list.

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede: I mean, they’re called The Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Also, a wonderful mix of funny and serious.

 

Am I missing a favorite book set in a forest or woods? Let me know! I’d love to read more of them.

 

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Recent Reading: Black, Bradshaw, Echols, Samatar

darkest part of the forestThe Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black: This really should be its own post, if post length were an indication of how much I love a book. After not quite loving The Coldest Girl in Coldtown (I know. I’m sorry.), I am happy to say that The Darkest Part of the Forest hit all the right notes for me. Siblings trying to save each other? Scary fairies? Fairy tale tropes being played with lovingly? Awesome characters? Yes to all of these things! I also appreciated that there’s diversity on several different fronts. But mostly I just loved Hazel and Jack and Ben and the horned prince. Lovely, lovely book.

sand reckonerThe Sand-Reckoner by Gillian Bradshaw: A couple of people have said how much they liked this Bradshaw book, and having read it I can totally see why. It’s a little sadder than most of her others, a little less clear-cut in terms of good vs. bad. While I’m not enamored of the male genius figures in fiction right now, I will make an exception for Bradshaw’s Archimedes, because he’s so sensitively drawn. And we do see him from other perspectives which I think helps balance that trope out. This has some of Bradshaw’s more lovely writing too. While I doubt any book will ever be quite as beloved for me as The Beacon at Alexandria, this is definitely one I can see myself re-reading.

perfect couplePerfect Couple by Jennifer Echols: I really like Jennifer Echols. When I’m in a certain mood, she’s one of the authors I always reach for. Her books are light without being thoughtless and she often draws in some social commentary. Plus, I really enjoy her characters, who always read to me as actual teens, without losing any of the romance. Perfect Couple is the second book in her latest YA series, The Superlatives. Harper is a photographer; Brody is the school quarterback. They aren’t really alike at all. But when the school votes them “Perfect Couple That Never Was,” Harper starts to wonder if they’re more similar than she thought. One of the things I appreciate about Echols’s books is the variety of experience in her characters and Perfect Couple is no exception. While the conceit of the book may stretch the bounds of believability a tad, I really didn’t care. It’s a smart, well written teen romance, and just what I needed.

stranger in olondriaA Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar: I’ve been meaning to read Samatar’s debut since it came out two years ago. It’s a really engrossing book, which probably deserves more space than I can give it here. It’s about family and myth and home, about history and colonialism. But most of all it’s about books, and a relationship with books. Samatar’s language is dense and beautiful, with occasional moments of iridescent beauty. I thought for awhile about why it’s adult rather than YA, since I can easily read Jevick as in his late teens (I can’t remember how clearly his age is given). But in that nebulous “you’ll know it when you see it way,” it does seem quite clearly adult. I think there’s a lack of immediacy to the story–it’s so clearly Jevick looking back over his past–and that’s the closest I can come to saying what I mean. Regardless, it was a fascinating book, and I’m still mulling over it several days later.

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January releases I’m excited about

juna's jar

Most of these have piqued my interest because I’ve read a book or books by the same author and liked them, or they’re sequels to books I’ve already read. The exception is Juna’s Jar, which just looks like a lovely picture book from Lee & Low.

darkest part of the forestchosen princethe just city

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black
The Chosen Prince by Diane Stanley
The Just City by Jo Walton
Perfect Couple by Jennifer Echols
Searching for Super by Marion Jensen
First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen
Juna’s Jar by Jane Bahk, illustrated by Felicia Hoshino

perfect couplesearching for superfirst frost

What January releases are you excited about?

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The Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

iron trialThe Iron Trial, by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, is a book that I found myself somewhat surprised and delighted by. On the surface, it looks quite a bit like the standard Young Hero Learns Magic and Finds Friendship and Enemies story. But it’s doing some interesting things with that story, in ways I wasn’t expecting.

The story starts off with one of those differences. Unlike most young heroes, Callum Hunt knows about magic and the existence of the mage’s school, the Magisterium. And he doesn’t want to go. His father has taught him that magic is dangerous, that the mages are cruel, using their students for experiments and not caring about their safety. But Callum has to go to the Iron Trials anyway, so he goes intending to make sure he doesn’t get in.

That doesn’t work so well, and he ends up chosen by Master Rufus, along with two other students, Aaron and Tamara. They quickly form a threesome, the first friends that Callum has ever had. I found this friendship to be really the heart of the book–the way the three interacted, sometimes warmly and sometimes slightly at odds, was nice. And I appreciated the way they stood up for each other in various ways.

I also appreciated that Black and Clare have clearly made an effort to include diverse characters. Callum himself is disabled–his leg was shattered as a baby and he is permanently affected by this. There are students from several other minorities, including Tamara. I can’t speak to the accuracy or respectfulness of any of these portrayals, but it is refreshing to see a fantasy world that doesn’t default to white able-bodied kids. In fact, even Aaron who is sometimes set up as the stereotypical Hero, is also shown to be much more complicated than that.

Then there are some severely spoilery things that I can’t talk about, but which set up some intriguing questions about identity and family. I really want to know how these will be resolved, but we’ve got four more books to find out.

I did find that the story was oddly paced in a few places, especially towards the beginning. Oddly, given that I often like shorter books, I wished that a little more time had been spent on the details of magic and learning magic, to giving the texture of the world. And there were a few points where I really wished that the characters would just talk to each other–plots centering on characters keeping secrets when that doesn’t entirely make sense are not my favorite. On the other hand, I do think the characters were written in a way that attempted to help the reader understand why they might keep those secrets. And in thinking about young readers, I suspect this might not be as much of an issue as it is for me.

All in all, this is a book which is doing some fresh, interesting things that I appreciated a lot. I will definitely be reading the next one.

Book source: public library
Book information: 2014, Scholastic; middle grade fantasy
____________________
Holly Black is one of my favorite authors
All of my Holly Black reviews
All of my Cassandra Clare reviews

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Doll Bones by Holly Black

When I first heard about Doll Bones, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read it or not. Horror is not really my DollBonesthing, and I definitely was it talked about as a middle grade horror book. And the cover did not really help–it’s a wonderful, eye catching cover, but you have to admit, the doll is fairly creepy. However, I love Holly Black and there was something about the description that made me decide to go ahead and read it. And I’m so glad I did.

You see, although the cover and the book talk I initially heard made it sound like Doll Bones is a middle grade horror, it’s not. Oh sure, the Queen Doll is a bit frightening, and Black does a good job of teasing out the tension of whether she is real or not for a long time. But saying that Doll Bones is about the Queen is like saying Code Name Verity is about spies: technically right, but oh so very wrong. Doll Bones is actually about friendships and growing up and integrity. It’s about three friends who are struggling to find their place in the new world of middle school. And Holly Black does a marvelous job on so many levels.

First, there are the characters. Zach, who loves playing the game with his friends, but who is pressured by the expectations of what boys should and shouldn’t do. This pressure is personified in his father, who throws away Zach’s action figures and kickstarts the plot. A lot of the book is centered on Zach’s struggle to make sense of who he is: both the athlete and the boy who makes up stories. There’s Poppy, who remained a bit of an enigma to me in some ways. And there’s Alice, who is being raised by her very strict grandmother.

And there’s the friendship between the three of them, which is almost a character in itself. They’ve always had each other and it’s been this wonderful uncomplicated thing. But growing up means becoming more complicated and that’s what lies at the heart of the story. How can you hold onto the important things when you’re changing and the world is changing around you? The answer that the story gives is a wonderful one, I think.

Moreover, I thought the writing itself was really nice. I admire Holly Black’s ability to write seemingly effortless prose, which actually has a lot of craft lying behind it. That’s definitely on show here, with a few moments that are a little more poetic/deep. I also liked the way the book explores issues of gender and race. They felt thought-out, not surface level or easy answers, but also integral to the story itself. It’s rare, as far as I can tell, for such a nuanced depiction to appear in a middle-grade book and I really appreciated it.

So, I really loved Doll Bones, despite a few minor quibbles about some of the plot points. Things seemed to happen very coincidentally in a few places, although you might be able to make a case for the Queen influencing events a bit (maybe?). Nevertheless, I think younger readers might not even see that, and I even just shrugged and accepted it. I liked some of the secondary characters as well, especially the librarian the children meet.

I’m not sure I’ve said anything new in this review–lots of other people have already read and appreciated this one, which isn’t surprising. But I was so impressed with the book, with the level of writing and characterization in it, that I had to add my praise.

Book source: public library
Book information: Margaret McElderry Books, 2013; middle-grade

Other reviews:
Charlotte’s Library
Random Musings of a Bibliophile
The Book Smugglers

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