Say this for Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince: the title is an undersell. I counted at least four cruel princes, with cruelty levels ranging from occasional and playful to routine and deliberate. If you queue this book up hoping for some rotten royals, boy oh boy, will you ever get your wish.
Among Goodreads users, The Cruel Prince was this month’s single most-anticipated book. (A movie adaptation is already in the works.) It’s the start of a new “Folk of the Air” series by the author of the popular Spiderwick Chronicles (2003-2004). At least in this first installment, the series title is less accurate than the book title: the only time these fairy folk take to the air is, I kid you not, when they’re going to the mall.
Black’s land of Faerie is a horrific place, particularly for mortals. Most humans in Faerie are kept as zombie-like servants who have been “glamoured” out of their right minds by immortals, who can do so at will. Jude, the book’s adolescent narrator, preserves her own volition both through an assortment of anti-glamour charms and through the protection of her adopted father, the royal enforcer Madoc.
Madoc adopted Jude and her twin sister Taryn by killing both of their parents. In front of them. With a sword. Yet Jude still loves Madoc, which confuses her a bit and confuses us even more. The murders happen at the book’s opening, when Jude is a young child; the story then flashes forward by about a decade, by which point Jude is firmly ensconced in the world of Fairy.
The reason for her parents’ slaying eventually becomes clear, but her love-hate relationship with Madoc initially takes a back seat to the cruel prince who’s probably the titular Cruel Prince: Cardan, a boy about her age who relentlessly teases her, ostensibly because he just hates mortals but actually for reasons that are immediately obvious to anyone who’s ever read any book before.
The first half of The Cruel Prince subjects Jude to a series of humiliations and depredations that include drugging her with faerie fruit and attempting to glamor her out the window of a tall tower. Her older sister Vivi, who’s dating a mortal girl she meets at the mall, wants Jude and Taryn to join her in a permanent escape from Faerie: manifestly the right move, but one that Jude resists because she’s hoping to earn a knighthood through her combat prowess.
The complicated relationship between Faerie and the outside world is central to Black’s tone and setting, yet she barely explores it. Why do immortals still dress and talk like it’s the Middle Ages? How is the mortal-exploitation industry regulated? Where, exactly, is Faerie? Rather than spend time on these mundane matters, Black prefers to charge straight into her crowded plot, with the result being that we’re caught up in a succession battle for the the throne of the High King before we really even understand what that means.
There’s also a strange disconnect between Jude’s routine prep-school shenanigans and the life-and-death stakes. A typical development has Jude agreeing to attend a party being thrown by a boy she has a crush on, despite the fact that his guests will include a wicked clique who just that afternoon made an actual attempt to kill her. Even for horny teens, there have got to be limits.
Despite the fact that Jude has been raised in Faerie to the extent that she’s developed Stockholm Syndrome and can’t imagine a life elsewhere, she still for some reason uses casual slang and low diction. Her watchword for Faerie and its denizens: sucks.
“I should be glorying in seeing Cardan like this. I should be glad that his life sucks.”
“His life sucks, maybe worse than mine, even though he’s a prince of Faerie and a horrible jerk and probably going to live forever.”
“Madoc killed our parents, so that sucks.”
Black, in the voice of Jude, also struggles to summon appropriately majestic language to describe the manifold wonders of the magical realm. The nadir comes when Jude opens a gift from Madoc. “It’s a really, really, really pretty sword.”
Audiobook narrator Caitlin Kelly is all to true to Black’s flat style. As Jude she’s deliberate and measured, taking her time to explain the convoluted politics of the royal family of Faerie. As other characters, though, she tends to exaggeratedly vary her voice. Carden sounds like he has a permanent head cold, Madoc sounds like a bad Dracula, and Jude’s lover Locke (who, we’re constantly reminded, has seductive “fox eyes”) has severe vocal fry. Vivi (with her “cat eyes”) speaks so lazily, Kelly squeezes her voice out like the dregs of a toothpaste tube.
Kelly deserves some kind of hazard pay, though, for the scene where she has to read an entire page worth of her character’s name, written by one of the many characters who’s weirdly obsessed with her. “Jude. Jude. Jude. Jude. Jude. Jude. Jude. Jude! Jude. Jude. Jude. Jude! Jude! Jude! Jude! Jude! Jude! Jude! JudeJudeJude.” And so on, for 34 seconds that feel like as many awkward hours.
True again to her title, Black’s real flair is for dramatic punishments. The book comes most alive when Jude is sprawled half-naked in front of her classmates, trapped in the ecstatic grip of some faerie fruit that was mashed into her mouth; or when Cardan is being whipped by his sadistically manipulative older brother; or when yet another cruel prince is testing Jude’s loyalty by forcing her to stab herself. The whole book has an uncomfortable whiff of torture porn.
The book’s final chapters pick up steam as Black hacks through a resolution to her overly elaborate plot, and there’s a nice twist at the end, but it’s a wincing slog to get there. In one of the final scenes, the characters are back at the shopping mall, delighting in the simple pleasures of good old-fashioned mortal commerce. When a trip to Target feels like a respite at Rivendell, maybe it’s time to explore a new fantasy universe.