This review contains spoilers The Cruel Prince, the first book in Holly Black’s The Folk of the Air trilogy.
Author: Holly Black
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publish Date: January 8, 2019
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You must be strong enough to strike and strike and strike again without tiring. The first lesson is to make yourself strong.
After the jaw-dropping revelation that Oak is the heir to Faerie, Jude must keep her younger brother safe. To do so, she has bound the wicked king, Cardan, to her, and made herself the power behind the throne. Navigating the constantly shifting political alliances of Faerie would be difficult enough if Cardan were easy to control. But he does everything in his power to humiliate and undermine her even as his fascination with her remains undiminished.
When it becomes all too clear that someone close to Jude means to betray her, threatening her own life and the lives of everyone she loves, Jude must uncover the traitor and fight her own complicated feelings for Cardan to maintain control as a mortal in a Faerie world.
At the end of The Cruel Prince, Jude bound Cardan to her before making him the High King of Elfhame. Taken by surprise, Cardan refuses to play the role of a good High King and instead spends his time living in gluttony and revelry. Thus, Jude, now the High King’s Seneschal, becomes the power behind the throne and makes decisions for the good of Elfhame behind the scenes. But not everyone wants to see Cardan wear the crown. There are some who’d rather see it on another Greenbriar head, and some who’d rather wear it themselves. So Jude balances her silent rule with her duties as spymaster to keep the High King safe. Only a few months into Cardan’s rule, Jude learns that someone close to her will betray her. Working against time, she seeks to identify the traitor while also trying to understand her complicated feelings for the wicked king.
This book is the second installment of Holly Black’s The Folk of the Air series. I enjoyed the first book a lot and, now that Elfhame is a firmly established setting, there’s more room for plotting and scheming. The Wicked King reminded me a lot of a “game of thrones,” but told from the viewpoint of one character, Jude.
In The Cruel Prince Jude uncovered Madoc’s plot to rule as High King as regent to Oak, Jude’s younger brother. Though Jude won that battle, Madoc is a redcap and battle is his nature and he will not fly the flag of surrender. Jude now knows that Madoc won’t underestimate her again, and she must constantly gather information to stay one step ahead of him.
Though Jude begrudgingly secured the loyalty of some courts, discontentment still simmers, particularly in the Undersea, ruled by the powerful and influential Queen Orlagh. Cardan’s ghastly behavior creates further dissatisfaction among those who’ve pledged their loyalty to the crown. And Locke’s appointment as Master of Revels does little to improve Cardan’s reputation and threatens to jeopardize Jude’s silent rule. Disapproving of Cardan’s behavior, confused by her feelings for him, and worn down by her responsibilities, Jude avoids the High King as much as possible, but can only do so for so long.
Once again, Jude’s tenacity and fortitude impress me. Cardan is unspurprisingly frustrating, but the slow burn is there and I’m here for it. The story mostly focuses on the political chess game, but there some moments allow us a glimpse into what makes Cardan do what he does. There are a couple of scenes which “humanized” the Bomb and the Roach into characters who are more than just spies. Though still minor characters, there is more page time with Vivi and Heather, Vivi’s girlfriend. I think most of us agree that Taryn’s and Locke’s relationship is toxic, but I feel similarly about Vivi and Heather.
(Mild spoiler ahead.) I don’t think their relationship is nearly as toxic as Taryn’s and Locke’s. But Vivi, who seems to have a vivid understanding of right and wrong where Madoc is concerned, seems strangely unable to be truthful with Heather. Since this story is from Jude’s point of view we don’t know exactly why Vivi isn’t forthcoming with Heather, but I hope she finds it within herself to be honest in the next book. (End mild spoiler.)
The character who betrays Jude surprised me. There are a couple of betrayals, one of which I expected, and the other, not so much. Not to mention the ending of this book shocked me and, if you follow me on Twitter, you got to see my reaction after I finished it. I was so mad! I truly hope these characters redeem themselves in the final installment of this trilogy.
Content warnings: murder
Reading format: Paperback