OVERALL RATING: ★★★½/5
(Good Reads summary here.)
I’ve been sitting on this review for a while because I can’t seem to figure out how I felt about this book. I feel like for every positive I think of, I think of a negative as well. For the most part, I enjoyed it, but it’s not sticking with me the way really great books tend to do. I’ve also been trying to sort out my own thoughts on it and to not be influenced by what other people thought of it.
When The Cruel Prince first had ARC’s coming out, everyone seemed to be raving about it. I got really excited about it and couldn’t wait to read it. A friend of mine asked for a recommendation and because I hadn’t read anything really noteworthy when she asked and because this seemed right up her alley, I suggested this one. I hadn’t read it yet, but I trusted the reviews I had seen on bookstagram and GoodReads, as their opinions typically aligned with my own. Note to self: no more recommending books I haven’t actually read because my friend hated it, and I felt so terrible for recommending it to her. I’m having a hard time separating my ideas about it from hers, so that’s part of the reason I struggled with this review.
I really did appreciate that Black went the more traditional route in terms of the portrayal of faerie in the book. As much as I really do enjoy how they’re represented in books like those by Sarah J. Maas, it was refreshing to have the trickster side of faerie myth in a novel. I really do prefer the scarier, creepier side of faerie lore, particularly how it contrasts the portrayals that are more popular at the moment. It is constantly reiterated that they are not human, something I think that gets brushed over in a lot of young adult fiction.
I felt that the story was a bit slow from the start, which seems to be a common critique of the book. I know that a lot of exposition was necessary to establish the world, but it didn’t flow as well as I think it could have. The action didn’t start from the get-go, so I really had to push to get through the introductory bits. Once the action got going, though, I was more invested. The plot was gripping, although I felt like certain things didn’t get explained quite as well as they could have. The biggest example of this, for me, was the role and succession of the monarchy. I think that because Dain was the assumed successor, Black didn’t feel the need to explain the details of it. While it may have been unnecessary given the circumstances, it made the world-building seem a little incomplete, and as someone who really loves good, thorough world-building, I found it frustrating.
In a similar vein, the characterization of the bulk of the cast seemed lacking. We obviously know the most about Jude, since she is the main character and it’s told from her perspective, but she’s the only character we really see in full. A lot of it may be because she doesn’t have a complete understanding of the characters around her, but it’s like Black didn’t want to even try to write decent characterizations of the side characters. It makes every character seem really flat, and it’s hard to become truly invested in any of them, Jude included. It was really disappointing because I could tell that most of them had potential to be amazing, interesting characters and they all fell short of that.
I always wasn’t really a fan of the writing style. This was the first book I’ve read by Black, so I don’t know if it was just her style that I didn’t really like or if it was just the voice of this book in particular. My absolute biggest complaint that I really cannot get over is the way the voice shifted. One moment, you were reading an eloquent description of the setting, the next you’d get a comment like “he’s such a jerk, he really sucks.” That kind of abrupt shift is really jarring. I know it’s meant to be representative of how Jude is struggling with her dual identity as a mortal in the faerie realm, how she’s stuck oscillating between her mortal and faerie teachings, but there’s a way to show that without disrupting the flow of the prose the way it does. Besides, she was taken when she was 7 and has lived in Elfhame for 10 years. No matter how frequently she visits the mortal realm, which doesn’t seem to be that often, Jude’s time with the faeries should have overtaken what she learned as a human. Maybe I’m overthinking the psychology of it, but I don’t think I am. She seems to want to be one of them and has had more than enough time to adapt to their language and culture, even if she doesn’t truly want to. Also, a lot of the storytelling didn’t flow very well. There seemed to be blocks of description, followed by blocks of dialogue, followed by blocks of Jude’s thoughts. It felt very formulaic and made portions of the book boring because nothing was actually happening. Great books find a way to integrate all these into the action, and I just didn’t see that at all in this book.
As for the characters, I agree with a lot of the criticism that she complained too much. In general, I thought she was bearable, but not necessarily likable. The plot had me interested enough that I didn’t really mind that I didn’t like Jude, but it’s really hard to like a book when you don’t like the protagonist. I give her a lot of credit for how clever she is, but it just wasn’t enough for her to be truly interesting. Also, her views seem to shift too often for it to be easy to follow. Like the voice issue, I know it’s just meant to show how she’s stuck between these two identities, which is fair and should be interesting, but I don’t think Black successfully handled the duality.
I have thoughts on Cardan and Locke as well, but they include spoilers, so read on at your own risk.
For a book called The Cruel Prince, Cardan really doesn’t play a central role in the story. Yes, we’re learning about him as Jude does, but I think the title gives away a bit too much. We’re supposed to think Cardan is the titular character, and, in a lot of ways, he is. But because we have this belief, we read too much into his character. By the end, maybe we’re supposed to realize that Cardan isn’t the true cruel prince, that either Dain and Balekin is, but we’re made to believe that it’s Cardan. It shapes how we perceive him throughout the story, no matter how much we learn about him and his brothers. I completely ignored Jude’s fling with Locke because I knew that Cardan was eventually going to be the love interest. That’s not an assumption I would have made if the book had been called something else. It was frustrating to be able to confidently guess the direction of the story, especially because the interactions with Locke had the potential for way more drama and intrigue than they did.
Speaking of Locke: I don’t understand the point of his relationship with Jude. It didn’t seem to drive any aspect of the plot. Cardan didn’t even seem to be that jealous of them, even though he’s supposedly in love with Jude. The whole debacle with Taryn was odd as well and seemed to be a half-assed way to add tension between the two sisters. Sure, it created drama, but I hate when love interests are used to drive siblings apart. There are so many better, more interesting ways to generate conflict, and this one is my least favorite trope. I think there was enough strife between Jude and Taryn over how to integrate into faerie society that the plot with Locke was unnecessary and frustrating. It also took away from Taryn’s character by making her seem like she was some weak, love-struck mortal that I don’t believe she was. It didn’t do her character any justice.
Back to the title: I’m honestly not convinced Black’s intention was to question if Cardan was the real cruel prince. It could be that it’s supposed to be all three of them, Cardan, Dain, and Balekin, and I think it makes for an interesting dynamic for the reader, particularly because we learn that Cardan is another victim of his family. I could be completely overanalyzing this, and part of me believes I am because of the sequel title. The Wicked King can really only be two people: Cardan and Oak. Once again, we’re supposed to believe it’s Cardan. We know he’s angry at Jude for tricking him and has a history of tormenting her, so we have every right to believe he will be wicked to her. But if Black wants to prove to me that she’s thought about the implications of her titles, she will have to make someone else the wicked king referenced in the title. I have very little faith that she’ll do this based on what I’ve seen in this book, but I think having Oak be wicked, making all of Jude’s efforts for naught, is a much more fascinating idea than doing what we can all guess and having Cardan be evil. If Black wants to surprise us all, Oak will be wicked, giving Cardan a redemption arc. Unfortunately, I don’t see this happening, but I’ll be more than happy if Black proves me wrong.
Who do you think the cruel prince is supposed to be? What plot twist do you think Black will throw at us in The Wicked King?