The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air #1) by Holly Black

I put off reading this for so long because I assumed it was the kind of book a certain subset of YA readers go gaga over despite a lack of any real substance, and BOY, WAS I WRONG! This book was so good, I wound up reading in bed way past my bedtime, telling myself “just one more chapter” because I desperately wanted to know what happens next in this brilliant, audacious tale of a young human woman scheming to not only survive but thrive in the courts of the immortal fey.

Jude Duarte was only seven when her mother’s redcap husband killed her birth parents and claimed his daughter, her older sister Vivienne, whisking both girls as well as Jude’s twin, Taryn, back to the High Court of Faerie. Madoc is High King Eldred’s most trusted general, and his sense of honor will not allow him to do anything less than raise his now-dead wife’s children as his own. Ten years on, Jude hasn’t exactly forgiven him for what he’s done, but she and Taryn have both adapted well enough to life among the fey, having been raised among the Gentry as befitting Madoc’s status. Ofc, several highborn fey aren’t pleased by this, particularly Prince Cardan, the youngest of High King Eldred’s six children. Cardan and his circle of friends take great pleasure from tormenting Jude, to the point of driving a wedge between her and her twin. When one of the other royal heirs offers her a chance to prove herself and thereby secure her position at court, Jude leaps at the prospect of a royal patron whose protection will hopefully make Cardan leave her and Taryn alone.

So far, a standard if slightly more brutal retelling of a familiar enough tale, but when Taryn — who sucks — chooses her fey lover over her sister, it starts to get more interesting. I thought it was pretty obvious who Taryn was in love with, but really appreciated how Holly Black worked the story such that you weren’t 100% sure till the reveal, and even before then could empathize with Jude in a “girl, I understand your reasoning but please don’t go in the basement!” sort of way. But then civil war erupts, and Jude suddenly finds herself in the unique position of being able to play kingmaker. All she has to do is lie, cheat and not get herself killed, a tall order in a realm where many fey already view her kind as eminently disposable to begin with.

This is one of those books where I’m loath to discuss too much plot because it all slots so neatly together to make a dazzling, seamless whole. Part of the reason I had to finish the book all in one sitting last night was because my jaw kept literally dropping as Jude put her desperate plan into action. The sheer chutzpah of her machinations were a joy to read, on par with watching a good heist come together. Come to think of it, she was busy stealing a throne. The outcome… well, let’s just say that Cardan’s last lines to her in this book were both chilling and deserved.

If the beautifully crafted plot was the brains of this book, then the strong characterizations were definitely the beating heart. Ms Black made some very bold yet completely realistic choices with Jude, Taryn and Vivienne. Vivienne, older than the twins and half fey herself, longs to return permanently to the mortal world, and has never forgiven Madoc for what he did to her mother and stepfather. The fully human twins on the other hand want nothing more than to integrate into their new world, albeit in different ways, and have adapted as young children will do to the reality of Madoc as their de facto dad. It helps that he’s actually a pretty good dad to them, and illustrates how families are complicated and strange. Ms Black’s talent for fleshing out her characters extends to so many others in these pages, as well. Conflicted, clever, compassionate Jude is by far the standout tho, occasionally making bad choices but always, always trying to do her best for her family and for those in need of protection.

I have the sequel The Wicked King already but have six deadlines to hit between now as I draft this (December 9th) and the 20th, so will have to wait till the end of the month to continue this amazing story. I’m only sorry I didn’t start this sooner! The Cruel Prince is truly some of the best YA fantasy — heck, even regular fantasy, and definitely anything involving political intrigue regardless of genre — writing out there today.

The Cruel Prince was published January 2nd, 2018 by Little, Brown and is available from all good booksellers, including

Want it now? For the Kindle version, click here.

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