Book: “The Cruel Prince” by Holly Black
Publishing Info: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, January 2018
Where Did I Get this Book: bought it!
Book Description: Jude was seven years old when her parents were murdered and she and her two sisters were stolen away to live in the treacherous High Court of Faerie. Ten years later, Jude wants nothing more than to belong there, despite her mortality. But many of the fey despise humans. Especially Prince Cardan, the youngest and wickedest son of the High King.
To win a place at the Court, she must defy him–and face the consequences.
In doing so, she becomes embroiled in palace intrigues and deceptions, discovering her own capacity for bloodshed. But as civil war threatens to drown the Courts of Faerie in violence, Jude will need to risk her life in a dangerous alliance to save her sisters, and Faerie itself.
Warning: This review contains a lot of ranting, and because it’s so popular on Goodreads and other places, I know this will be an unpopular opinion. But it’s mine. It doesn’t have to be yours and, while I think that even those who like this book deserve better, especially as far as the romantic interests go, everyone’s tastes run differently! And that’s ok! That’s why we have libraries packed full of options for everyone! But if it’s hard for you to read negative opinions on things you love (which I totally understand), it’s probably best to just pass on this review now.
Review: This was one of the few books that I broke down and bought without having read it before. Sadly, it is also further reinforcement for why I have that general policy to begin with. But I was beguiled by the beautiful cover and a book description that was right up my alley. Perhaps also the hype, which really should have been my warning sign, as I’ve found that very few books that are super hyped in the fantasy YA community these last couple of years actually turn out to be my cup of tea. Alas.
As I said, there is a lot to love in this book description. I’ve always loved stories about Faerie courts. I also love stories about sisterhood. And, of course, political intrigue. What should have been my warning was the concept of the cruel prince himself, Cardan. My bookclub comrade, Alicia, was also reading this book when I was and asked what I thought about this book when I was only 50 pages in or so. At the time, I said that I was enjoying it but that the main character had better not get together with the titular “cruel prince.” And Alicia just looked at me and laughed. Well…yeah…touche, I guess!
I like to try and say positive things about all books I review on here, and this book in particular seems to be getting a lot of raving reviews, so I know there must be things here that many people are liking. But honestly, I just don’t see it. The writing was technically good, I guess, and the Faerie court was appropriately capricious and beautiful, but that’s about all I have.
Though even with these aspects, Black wasn’t introducing anything we haven’t seen a million times before with fantasy like this! Yeah, yeah, beautiful food that is actually rotten. Faerie folk who have animal aspects like hooves and wings. Dancing. Mermaids. And this speaks to one of my first problems: the world-building and storytelling. If an author is going to write a Faerie court book, the fact that there a million others out there should serve as a motivation to put extra effort into plotting and characters. You already know you’re playing in a very full sandbox as far as the world itself, so you need to challenge norms in other areas. Unfortunately, Black does not. Instead we get a long checklist of YA tropes being ticked off one by one.
This book is a case study in “telling, not showing” writing. We are simply informed of most of the plot points with very little build up, no clear arc, and characters who behave and say things simply because they must, but without any written character support for their choices. We’re told that Jude wants to be a Fae Knight, and there is some hand service to her wanting to gain power, but none of this is set in any concrete character position that we are consistently shown throughout the story. At one point early in the book, we get to this grand tournament, an event she’s been training for her entire life and where she can exhibit her skills…and I’m pretty sure we get this exact line: “I fought harder than I ever had before.” End scene. Great. She’s a fighter whose been telling us for pages how important this all is and how much she’s trained (again, we’ve seen none of that) and then the moment comes! And we’re just told she fought hard. How intriguing! I’m definitely invested now! It’s sheer laziness of writing and the kind of things that drives me crazy.
And this bland writing is paralleled in bland characterization. Throughout the entire book, I never understood Jude. What’s really important to her? Why did she do one thing here and another there? How is she growing, learning, and reacting to pretty big events happening around her? There was just nothing consistent going on with her character that readers could latch on to.
What’s more, most of her story is directly contrary to the message that I thought this book was going for, and the one thing that could have really given Jude depth as a character. She saw her parents murdered before her eyes and then was raised by the man who killed them and in a land where she and her sister are systematically abused and terrorized by those around them. This is the set up for a strong story of resilience and of reclaiming one’s own power. At its most basic level, you could get a pretty good revenge story out of this.
But no. Jude is every YA heroine we’ve ever read. We’re told she’s bad ass, despite never seeing it. She makes horrible decisions with apparently no sense of self-preservation, and worse, no sense of the fact that her choices also result in harm to others. We’re told she’s terrified by those around her, but she still wants to be one of them. She’s thoughtless and impulsive, with no foundation to speak of that would explain why she does what she does when she does it. Her thoughts on Faerie and its people are completely dependent on what the story needs her to do, or feel, next.
With all of this, Jude’s own Stockholm-syndrome-esque behavior and her sister’s passive victim hood, I thought the book was building up towards some sort of commentary on the effects of bullying, terror, and abuse. But nope. There’s nothing there: like the Faerie food, it looks beautiful and complex, but at its core, it’s nothing. It’s honestly confusing. Was this just a coincidence, that the author set up all of these factors around abuse and victim hood? Did she do it on accident while trying to write a fairly typical YA fantasy story? Because, as it stands, its as if she honestly didn’t realize that that’s what she had written for all of the attention its given.
And, worst of all, we have yet another YA love interest who is the epitome of abuse and bullying. And I am absolutely sick of this persistent and pernicious trope of authors creating a character who does despicable things, giving him “a past,” and then hand-waving away his own behavior (especially if he’s done it because secretly he’s kind of into the heroine). This is not a message we should be sending to young women. Yes, people can survive terrible things, and often those who commit them had darkness in their past. But they are still responsible for the terrible things they do, and while you can pity the circumstances that brought them to that point, they ARE NOT love interest material. They need help. Professional, practical, and ongoing help.
I’m completely fed up with this, and it is disheartening to see it continue in YA fantasy books and have those books receive rave reviews. In a year full of #metoo and terrible stories about women being subjected to horrendous behavior by men in power, the fact that we are still reading about YA heroes who outright abuse the heroine but are then presented as potential love interests just makes me sick. This is not ok. Even the final twist of the book doesn’t save this from what’s been set-up: multiple love triangles between victims and their bullies.
Ultimately, this goes down as my first major disappointment of the year. I’m not sure why this book is as hyped as it is or how it is receiving all of the positive reviews it is. At best, it’s presenting a pretty familiar story with all the elements we’ve come to expect: a story that is told to us, not shown; a heroine who has no clear characterization and whose decisions are nonsensical at best and outright stupid at worst; and a love interest who has no right being a love interest at all. I don’t recommend this book. Instead, if you want to read an amazing Faerie court book that’s come out recently, check out “An Enchantment of Ravens.”
Rating 2: A major disappointment. I expect more of YA fantasy. And, at this point, we have a responsibility to those who suffer from real life abuse and bullying to put away this notion that cruelty in any form, for any reason, can be “sexy” or “charming.”
Find “The Cruel Prince” at your library using WorldCat!