My imprinting as a reader for any description of the fae and their realms can be ascribed to Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series, so it would be honest to admit that I tend to compare to it any book or series dealing with faerie. Honest but probably unfair, since any novel should be judged on its own merits… In the case of The Cruel Prince, though, I found such a fresh, new approach that I never felt the need to compare it with other similar works, and simply let it enfold me in its compelling story, and enthrall me completely.
The twins Jude and Taryn are seven years old when their world comes crashing down around them: a mysterious man, one who shares the same peculiar looks as their older sister Vivi, appears out of nowhere, kills their parents and takes the three shocked girls with him. He’s Madoc, their human mother’s fae husband and Vivi’s father, come to exact his vengeance for the woman’s desertion and to take back his daughter where he believes she belongs. Jude and Taryn, even though they are fully human, are included in the ‘package’ out of a quite peculiar sense of duty, and brought up as Madoc’s own children.
When we see them again, after such a shocking beginning, they are in their late teens, and the long years spent in faerie have changed them deeply: children are indeed nothing but adaptable, which is also a crucial survival trait, but the twins have each evolved their own methods and goals to belong in an environment that is not exactly friendly to humans, and will always look on them as outsiders, no matter the high standing of their adoptive father. Where Taryn tries to blend into the background, adopting the rules and mannerisms of the fae, striving to be like them despite the obvious differences, Jude prefers to stand out, and dreams of one day being a knight and earning the acceptance and respect she craves through feats of valor. Even more interesting is their sister Vivi’s continued defiance, both of the rules and of their father: she, who would not have any problems in belonging, is the one who could not care less about faerie, and instead prefers spending time in the human world, as a human girl.
This fascinating dynamic is complemented by the equally fascinating relationship of the twins with Madoc, the balance of hate and love, fear and respect that have been in constant warfare with each other over the years: if the girls are unable to forget the bloodbath that made them orphans in one cruel stroke, they at the same time see Madoc as a fair, if stern, surrogate parent, one whose approval they seek – even against their deepest inclinations. If one wanted an in-depth study of Stockholm Syndrome, it would not be necessary to look farther than here…
All of the above is centered in an exploration of the realm of faerie that is nothing short of fascinating: the unthinking cruelty of the fae is – if you will allow me the term – a matter of record, since the legendarium surrounding them portrays the fae as so alien, so remote from any human behavioral pattern, as to divest them from any romantic ideal. But The Cruel Prince goes several steps beyond that, painting the picture of a realm where danger lurks around every corner, where every morsel of food or drop of drink might prove fatal, where enslavement, murder and treason are as commonplace and as accepted as the air one breathes.
This background is leisurely explored, together with the characters’ journey, in the first half of the book, at which point both the story and the characterization take a huge leap forward and evolve into a breathless pace that’s full of surprises and reversals: to say that I literally flew through the second part of the novel would be a massive understatement, when I realized that the greater part of the attraction came from observing Jude as she navigates through the events, always keeping her goal in mind and ready to pay any price to reach it.
Jude is not exactly a sympathetic character, and even though I understand where most of her attitude comes from, I could not avoid being horrified at some of her choices and the ever-present calculation of the odds that would best serve her in her quest. Yet, she remains a fascinating figure, and one I could not avoid rooting for: it’s possible that my acceptance of her comes from her own honest acceptance of what she is – at some point, Madoc tells her that denying herself would prove more painful than giving in to her deepest instincts, so that when those killer instincts are needed she chooses to employ them, not just to fulfill her ambitions, but to do some good for the realm. It’s a sort of balancing act, a way of seeking an ethical side to her ambitious drive, and for me it works as it would not for a character based in the mortal world: Jude is as much a child of faerie as she is a mortal, and her way of taking the best of both worlds and making it work for her is brilliant, and believable.
This duality is not reserved for Jude alone, though, because almost every other character in this story is a study in contrasts, showing both a dark side and some frailties, or even redeeming qualities, that make them delightfully complex and impossible to pinpoint or fit into a specific mold, allowing for interpersonal dynamics that are ever-changing and unpredictable. My only disappointment comes from the fact that a few of them – like Cardan, the titular prince – are not explored enough and are somehow kept on the sidelines in favor of Jude, but I hope that the next novels in the series will correct the aim and give us a better understanding of these characters as well.
And speaking of next novels, given that The Cruel Prince closes, if not with a cliffhanger, with great uncertainty about how the future will develop, I am more than looking forward to see where the author will take us next. As a first encounter with Holly Black’s work this was a very auspicious one, and I know it will not be the last…