Book Review: The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

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So, if you’re on Twitter, Instagram, or planet Earth in general, you’ve probably heard of this little book called The Cruel Prince. The Cruel Prince is a YA fantasy novel by Holly Black, and the first in a series. It follows Jude, who, along with her twin sister, Taryn, and older sister, Vivi, was kidnapped from the mortal realm as a child and brought to live in the land of faerie. The three were kidnapped by Vivi’s biological father, Madoc, who had come to the mortal world to pursue their mother after she fled faerie to raise her children in the mortal world. Post-kidnapping, the three are raised by Madoc—a ruthless faerie general—in his home. But life in faerie isn’t exactly a magical walk in the park for Taryn and Jude. In addition to the fact that the man raising them also brutally murdered their parents in front of them, they are also looked down upon by the fey and tormented almost daily by the young faerie gentry—especially their ringleader, Prince Cardan.

Despite the obstacles in front of her, Jude wishes to earn her place in the court as a knight so that she can gain the respect of the fey and have power of her own, rather than being a helpless human in the faerie realm. But as the book progresses, she ends up getting way more than she bargained for as she becomes ensnared in more behind the scenes political turmoil than she could have ever imagined, including a foray into espionage and downright bloody battle for the crown.

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I received The Cruel Prince in the January OwlCrate, and I was glad I did, because I’m not sure if I would have picked it up on my own had I not received it in a subscription box. I’ve never read anything by Holly Black before, even though I know she’s a very popular YA author. The hype around this book has been so intense, I’m not sure if it would have driven me away from it or made me more inspired to get it had it not come in last month’s OwlCrate. For weeks, every single time I logged onto Instagram, Twitter, or YouTube, there was someone literally screaming about this book and how much they loved it. I’m so serious, just screaming. It was a constant barrage of Tweets like,”AAAAGGGHH OMG THIS IS THE MOST AMAZING BOOK I’VE EVER READ IN MY LIIIIFE” and Instagram captions with things like, “ALKDSKJAKLJKA I CAN’T POSSIBLY WAIT FOR BOOK TWO I’M GOING TO DIE!!!”

Ironically, sometimes that level of hype can actually drive me away from a book and color my expectations of it, but considering OwlCrate’s track record with choosing books that I end up loving, I just had to see what all the fuss was about. So, I went ahead and dove into this one just a few days after receiving it.

One thing I really enjoyed about The Cruel Prince was the juxtaposition of the mortal world and the faerie world. I’ve definitely read other books where the relation between the two worlds is clunky (at best) and just poorly done, but Black did an excellent job here of setting up the two worlds to exist, in a sense, parallel to one another in a way that seemed believable and sensible. I liked that they had the option to cross back and forth from one to the other, and I like that each world was clearly defined. You could tell the author had a specific vision and she was working hard to portray that to the reader.

I really liked that the time period was very clear and we could always the story was taking place in modern times, despite the fact that the land of faerie may seem very medieval by comparison to the human world. The fact that the book didn’t take place in some murky, ill-defined bygone era was one of its strong points, because this meant there were very stark contrasts in every facet of life when Jude and her sisters crossed from the human world to faerie and sometimes back again to visit. It wasn’t just the people and the lack of magic, but the clothes, the customs, everything. I really enjoyed this and the fact that it took place in contemporary times kind of added an extra layer of magic and wonder to it, because seeing these girls hanging at the mall and wearing Converse when they’re in the human world make it seem more likely that perhaps there really is a magical realm lurking just beyond our own, and we’d never know it. That sense of wonder and possibility is, I think, something readers truly appreciate.

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But what’s a good setting without good characters to populate it? I think Black does an excellent job of delivering that here, and I really enjoyed the character development in this novel. I especially enjoyed the dynamics between the three sisters and how their three different points of view on living in faerie—Vivi wants to leave for the mortal realm, Taryn wants to marry into the court, and Jude wants to fight her way into the court and earn her place as a knight—impacted the way they interact with each other and the way they interact with the world around them. It served as an excellent starting point for getting to know the characters and their motivations, and helped to flesh them out as more fully developed characters. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure about Jude at first and wasn’t sure if I would like her character, but as the book went on and she developed more, I felt like I got to know her better and liked her much more. She really grew a lot and became so tough and basically turned into a total badass (she starts making some serious power moves and I was so impressed—she definitely won me over). I loved how fierce she was and how committed she became to doing whatever it takes to achieve what she envisioned.

I also really liked Vivi and her somewhat rebellious attitude and her desire to return to living as a mortal. I thought that was a refreshing point of view, since a lot of times we get stories of mortals wanting to live in magical realms. It was interesting to see that story from the other side of the spectrum. Prince Cardan is pretty interesting character, too, and I’m looking forward to learning more about him and his backstory, as we didn’t get as much about him as I would have liked in this book, but I sense that may be coming in one of the forthcoming books in the series. Even Nicasia, who is largely depicted as one of Cardan’s overtly cruel and evil cronies, is someone I’d love to learn more about and see develop as a character as we go on. (Good thing there’s more books on the way, right?)

And finally, of course, we have the plot. While, to be honest, I thought the plot took a little bit to pick up, once it did pick up I found myself swept along and enjoyed the plot and all the conflict taking place—and boy, was there a heck of a lot of conflict. I always admire a good political intrigue storyline where there are a lot of complexities and layers happening, and I definitely think The Cruel Prince has that. Between the complexities of the political situation moving the plot forward and the interactions between the characters, tension built and built as the novel continued on until I found myself actually physically tensing up during some of the more action-packed scenes, reading as fast as I could to find out what happens, and I loved that. We had family drama, bloody action, fighting, spying, betrayal, and tons of scheming behind other people’s backs, so there was almost always something going on to sink your teeth into.

And speaking of tension, there was definitely also some romantic tension in this book, so if you’re here for that sort of thing, you will not disappointed. From the moment we first see Prince Cardan being mean to Jude, I felt like you could practically cut the tension in the air with a knife and found myself thinking, “Please tell me I’m not going to be the only one shipping these two!”

There were a few snags along the way for me though, and those few things kept me from becoming a member of the screaming masses absolutely losing it with praise for this novel. Bear in mind as I talk about these dislikes that they may very well seem small or what some may consider “nitpicking”, but to me, they were still flaws and they were definitely still things I disliked about the book. Mainly, I took issue with some of the writing. At times the writing was either inconsistent or too repetitive, alternating between straying entirely from what had been previously mentioned to falling back on the same exact sentences/sentence structure over and over. Whether this should have been fixed in writing or in copyediting, I don’t know—but either way, I believe it should have been fixed, as it detracted from what was otherwise a very good book.

The inconsistency was the first thing I noticed and it really pulled me out of the story, leaving me flipping back a few pages trying to figure out if I was confused, if the author was confused, or if she was for some reason trying to purposely confuse us. For example: the first time we see Jude, Taryn, and Vivi visit the mortal world to go to the mall, Jude makes a pretty big point of telling us what she’s wearing—a gray sweater with a star on it, a slouchy knit hat, beanies, and glittery silver Converse high-tops.

She’s not just wearing shoes. She’s not just wearing high-tops. She is wearing glittery. Silver. Converse. High-tops.

That’s very specific. So naturally, my brain makes a note of it.

And then my brain makes note of it again when Jude says, “We try to imitate girls we see in the human world…I am playing dress-up in ignorance. I no more can guess the assumptions that go along with glittering sneakers than a child in a dragon costume knows what real dragons would make of the color of her scales.” (Emphasis mine, of course.)

Got it. You’re wearing glittery Converse.

Okay, now let’s go to the mall.

I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist. I SERIOUSLY COULD NOT.

So they’re at the mall, and they do their shopping, hang out with Vivi’s girlfriend, and on their way out, a young man approaches them, and Jude reacts by basically beating the crap out of him.

And even though I should have been focusing on the fact that Jude’s first instinct is to basically assault someone trying to ask her out, all I could focus on was this:

“My booted foot hits his gut as he falls, rolling him over the pavement. I blink and find myself standing there, staring down at a kid who is gasping for air and starting to cry. My boot is raised to kick him in the throat, to crush his windpipe.”

Do you see what I see?

My booted foot.

My boot is raised.

But a few pages before this (eight, but who’s counting?) she explicitly told us multiple times that she was wearing glittery Converse sneakers.

Honestly, this wouldn’t be that big of a deal if she hadn’t made such a big thing out of the glittery shoes, going so far as to tell us that she has no idea what it symbolizes to humans that she is wearing glittery shoes. The fact that this wasn’t a small detail but a major detail that she specifically uses to show us something about her world and the way she sees and interacts with the human world drew a lot of attention to it—and then a few pages later, we dropped that detail altogether and the continuity fell apart, and I’m sorry, y’all, but it just drove me nuts.

The second writing-related tidbit that distracted me from the story was the repetition. For example, on page 180, Oriana passes Jude in the hall and she is wearing, “a gown the color of unripe mulberries”. Then on page 198, she says, “She is dressed in a day gown the vivid hue of unripe persimmons.”

And again, at this moment, surely there was something happening that I should have been paying attention to—something important—and yet all I could think was, “Does this woman not have any clothes the color of ripe fruit???” It’s so specific. It’s such a specific way of describing a color that it was impossible not to notice it being repeated.

Look, I know. These things may not bother other people. They really might not even be noticeable to others. And that’s fine. But for me, these sorts of little mistakes yank me right out of the story faster than Scorpion yanking his opponent toward him with his spear while yelling “GET OVER HERE!” 

I’m not obsessed with Mortal Kombat, you’re obsessed with Mortal Kombat.

And for me, anything that yanks me out of the story with that much force—anything that ruins that suspension of disbelief and so drastically disrupts the immersive experience of reading good fiction—is a major dislike. If I’m going along reading this and loving it and having a good time and these little things that could easily be corrected pull me out of the story, I’m bothered, so I will definitely count them among my dislikes. And let’s be honest, doesn’t a book this good deserve better attention to detail than this?

The only other dislikes I had were an apparent imbalance of action and what I felt was a bit of an overuse of the “I’m so special and don’t forget I’m super different from other girls” trope, which, like all dislikes, are really a matter of personal preference. I felt that most of the good action and big events that moved the story forward were tightly packed into the very end of the book, and it would have been great if that action had been spread out a little more throughout the book, as it seemed like it was a bit of a slow starter. I can see why the author wrote it that way (definitely) and I know we needed a lot of backstory and a lot of building up to the point of the action, but it definitely felt like the beginning moved a little slow and the ending just flew by. It would have been great to see a happy medium.

And then there’s the “I’m so different, I’m not like the other girls” trope that we see all the time.

And honestly, when done well, I don’t mind this trope at all. Uniquely enough, I think this book could serve as an example of this trope being done well and also not being done well. Where this trope excels and actually worked for me was in the last 3/4 of the book or so, where we get to see Jude training, learning, fighting, and really showing us that she’s not like the other girls—she’s very different from her classmates, her sisters, and her stepmother, for example. She’s much more fierce and her priorities clearly lie in a different place.

Where it’s not done well is at the beginning of the book where she repeatedly reminds us she has no idea how to dress like a human (we get it after the first time) or says things like Vivi “was nine when we were taken. She remembers so much more about being human than we do.” (Okay, Jude, you were seven. She only had two extra years on you. Could she really remember that much more or is this just you telling us how different you are again?) There’s also a really obvious scene where a boy at the mall (the one who Jude later assaults with her sneakered/booted foot) is staring at her but she assumes they are staring at Vivi’s girlfriend because, you know, she’s just so special and different and she doesn’t even realize it—because the main character can never realize how special and different and beautiful she is, right Bella?

I mean…

Again, these are a matter of personal preference. Are they going to make me hate the book? No way. But in the interest of fairness, I always feel like I should be honest about the things I disliked along with the things I did enjoy.

At the end of the day, even with a few dislikes here and there, I did really enjoy this book. I thought it was a fun and interesting read, I loved the characters, I really enjoyed the action, and the betrayal and espionage was probably my favorite part. Am I going to be screaming my praises for this book in all caps on Twitter for the next few weeks? Probably not, sorry. But did I like it? Yeah.

Am I going to stop asking myself questions anytime soon because I’m doing the same thing I complained about and being repetitive? Maybe.

I’d rate this book a solid 3 out of 5 stars, maybe 3 ½.

I’ll definitely be reading the second one, though I think I’ll survive the wait time until it is released. But I absolutely want to continue on this journey and see how much of a badass Jude is, go down with my Jude + Cardan ship, and get even further embroiled in all this political intrigue.

I’d definitely recommend this to YA fantasy lovers, people who love fierce female MCs, or anyone who with a penchant for complex battles for power and bloody skirmishes.

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So, what about everyone else? Did you read The Cruel Prince? What did you think? Will you be reading the next book in the series when it comes out? Let me know in the comments! You know I’d love to talk. <3

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