Title: The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air 1)
Author: Holly Black
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: January 2nd, 2018
Genre(s): YA Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Fae
Page Count: 384
Me: I should just write a mini review. Writing a detailed review for this is probably like doing an hour-long seminar on why Pixels doesn’t work as a commentary on video game culture.
Also me: Hey all, enjoy this 1200-word review! Also, here’s some crappy fanart!
(Warning: I wrote this in December when I was in a really ranty mood. Apologies to anyone who loved the book. :P)
I finally caved into hype’s cold, seductive embrace and cracked open this beauty. And what I found inside was…well, more or less what I’d expected. But also less.
A word of advice: if you’re looking for a fae story that’s built from the ground-up, with in-depth exploration of fae culture and social hierarchy and gritty characters, then look elsewhere.
But if you want Boys Over Flowers: Fae AU (kudos to Alice for mentioning the BOF comparison), complete with all the eyeroll-y drama, then turn your sweaters inside out and hop on over to Faerieland because Holly Black’s got you covered!
Part 1 is a story we’ve all seen before ad nauseam. A plain, outsider girl butts heads with the most infamous and popular clique at school and she’s the only one daring (and stupid) enough to defy them. They make her life a living hell, their leader gets off on tormenting her (because he’s an emotionally challenged asshole who doesn’t know how to express interest in a healthy way), but she ends up in a relationship with one of the members who’s so kind and so different from the rest, and all the while the tension between her and the leader ramps up.
Part 1 is like a shoujo high school story that got sloppily ported over to a fae setting. And I wouldn’t have minded the cliche of it all if the main characters had something going for them (one of my favourite things to experience is a story with an overdone plotline that absolutely works because the characters make it work–hello, Fullmetal Alchemist). This, for the most part, didn’t.
Let’s go down the list, shall we?
Jude is…something. I’m still not exactly sure what because book doesn’t give me much about her beyond hating Cardan, wanting more power, and being “badass” for the sake of being badass. It would have been nice if, in the beginning, we were shown what growing up in the fae as an orphaned human was like (how her parents’ murders affected her childhood, how she had to adjust to fae customs, etc), because right now she feels rather hollow and her connection to the fae world tenuous.
As for our titular character, we don’t actually see much of him. In the first half of the book Cardan pops in every now and then to bully Jude, and the second half he spends lounging around in the background like some pretty upholstery. And what we do see of him I found disappointingly tame. I wasn’t expecting a Joffrey-level of sadism but something meatier than what we got would have been great.
It’s like Holly Black wanted to write an enemy-to-lovers story starring a human girl and a bad boy fae but she couldn’t make the boy too bad because she wanted their romance to kickstart in book 1, so that the readers have something to hook onto before the sequel, and she didn’t want it to be a lopsided abuser-victim relationship. So Cardan ended up being this lukewarm, all bark and no bite character. Like a chihuahua with a nice fashion sense.
What I’d hoped for was a del Toro/Brom type of fae–the kind whose “cruelty” derives from the fact that they’re literally inhuman and view the world through a stranger lens than ours. Instead I got a middle school bully cosplaying as a fae. Yippee.
And because Cardan is such an underwhelming antagonist, the vitriol Jude throws at him feels a little overblown and misplaced. Why does she show more hatred towards this school bully than the man who murdered her parents in cold blood?
Oh, and their romance? It’s less of a romance and more:
“I hate you”
“I hate you more”
*furious lip-mashing noises*
Let’s also talk about Locke, the fox-eyed (literally) not-like-those-other-bullies faerie that Jude ends up swooning over. As someone who’s spent a decade on the receiving end of callousness and disdain, you’d think she’d be a little more, I don’t know, cautious about throwing herself heart-first into a romance with one of the Big Bad Four.
The silliness of this subplot is compounded by the fact that she harps on every chance she gets about how much she hates Cardan (“That doesn’t sound like Cardan, whom I despise” — I think my lady doth protest too much). So why does fox boy here get a free pass?
Three facts that make it glaringly clear that he’s terrible boyfriend material:
- The boy hangs out with Cardan and co. That makes him, at best, an enabler.
- He straight-up tells her in the beginning that it’s fun and easy to be terrible people. I figure that should set some alarm bells ringing.
- At one point he has her dressed up in his dead mother’s clothes. I’m not saying that that’s sociopathic, Norman Bates, get-out-of-there-girl behaviour but that’s exactly what I’m saying.
The writing ranges from okay, with some weird word choices here and there (I’m still not sure how anyone’s handwriting can be classified as “arrogant”), to awkward and unintentionally funny. Let’s just say that there are some passages that, had I been reading this as an ebook, would’ve made me wonder if I’d bought a fake fanmade copy.
Some of the highlights:
“She’s clearly shocked by my behavior. She should be. My behavior is shocking.”
“Just tell me why you hate me. Once and for all.”
“All I want to do is nice things that make you happy. Sure, I’ll make whatever bargain you want, so long as you kiss me again. Go ahead and run. I definitely won’t shoot you in the back.” (What is even going on with this paragraph? Why does it have a cadence that makes it sound like angsty song lyrics?)
And my absolute favourite:
“Because if I scream, there are guards in the hall. They’ll come. They’ve got big, pointy swords. Huge.” (Truly a threat for the ages. “They have ALL the swords. The BEST swords. HUUUUGE and bigly.”)
“Wow, Kathy, so much hate. And you still gave it a 6 out of 10?”
Right, here comes a confession: I didn’t actually dislike it. Was I annoyed? Definitely. Baffled? Sure. But I was never bored which is more than I can say for a lot of the other books I read in 2018.
The Cruel Prince is definitely not the start to the next great YA fantasy as some would have me believe, but it’s got marketability and a weird addictiveness that (almost) overrides my annoyance. It has everything that makes the Boys Over Flower formula popular with the added benefit of a protagonist who’s not a doormat which is, admittedly, cathartic (even if she does lack a personality). And Cardan does have potential to be interesting so I’m holding out on the hope that maybe–maybe–he plays a more active role in the sequel.
Oh, and Black’s descriptions of the food and fae clothing are pretty great. It doesn’t really contribute to the overall quality of the book–it only makes me wish the other elements of the story were as detailed–but it’s a nice touch.
So all this backhanded praise is to say its many faults won’t stop me from reading Book 2.
…And it won’t stop me from drawing Cardan, either (attempting to, anyway). Because aesthetics–this boy has ’em. (And no, I don’t know what’s going on with the “thorns” around him either. I got tired and lazy. Sigh.)