With a story concerning the Fae, spells and enchantments are to be expected, but in the case of this series the magic spills over from the books and bewitches the readers: I am myself surprised at the involvement I experienced with Holly Black’s Folks of the Air series, which deepened with this highly engaging second installment.
In Book 1 we met the two human sisters Jude and Taryn, whose mother had been for a while the wife of a Fae, Madoc, before escaping from Faerie with another human and the child she bore her husband, who later on found her, killed her and Jude and Taryn’s father and took the three girls back with him. Life in Faerie proved difficult for the two human twins, unlike their half-Fae older sister Vivi, but both of them had found a way to survive: Taryn by striving to blend in and make herself as inconspicuous as possible, Jude by her desire to emerge in a vital role in Fae society.
That desire and a burning ambition have now brought Jude to the position of seneschal to High King Cardan, one of her most bitter enemies and now bound for a year and a day by a promise to do her bidding, as she gains time for her step-brother Oak to grow into the role of monarch that is his rightful birthright. But as her stepfather Madoc used to lecture her, Power is much easier to acquire than it is to hold on to, and Jude struggles to keep abreast of the byzantine Court intrigues, of the constant plots to undermine her authority and of Cardan’s efforts to evade her control. As if all this were not enough, the Sea realm is plotting against the Land, threatening war, while Taryn’s impending marriage to the Fae Locke, one of the trickiest denizens of Elfhame, might compromise Oak’s safety since he and Vivi will be guests at the celebration.
Where The Cruel Prince introduced us to the story’s main players, The Wicked King is more plot-oriented, and while some new character angles are shown here, with quite interesting consequences, this novel moves at a steady pace through a succession of events that more often than not manage to overthrow any conclusion we might have made until that point: if Jude is being run ragged by the countless elements she must juggle in an ever-complicated balancing act, we readers experience a similar kind of mental exhaustion by trying to keep up with the many surprises the author springs on her main character as well as them. And yet we look forward to more…
What’s more, there is an increasing tension building between Jude and Cardan that takes on interesting shades since the mutual attraction is in conflict with their equally mutual hate – or is it? I never make a mystery of my wariness of romantic plots, and here I should have been even more skeptical about them considering the slight YA mood of these novels, but I have to admit that Ms. Black managed to convince me with her portrayal of these two characters and their contradictory emotions, which works very well inside the uncertain frame of Faerie, where misdirection and unknowable layers prove to be far more dangerous than outright lies, which the Fae are incapable of. Besides, this odd attraction works even better when considering that both Jude and Cardan are not immediately likable characters, even when taking into account the dramatic circumstances that have scarred their childhood and turned them into the people they are now: the most fascinating angle of the relationship, such as it is, does not come from the proverbial “will they or won’t they?” question, but rather from the desire to discover where it will lead them and what it will teach us about what truly makes them tick. And considering the way this second installment ends, that curiosity is now at its highest peak.
If power and the desire to wield it is one of the main themes in The Wicked King, there is another one that’s just as important: family ties. The relationship between Jude and her twin Taryn is not an easy one anymore, now that their paths have forked in different directions, separating them in outlooks if not in looks, and yet there is this unexpressed desire in Jude to keep the bond alive – even more so when considering they are both strangers in a strange land. It’s one of Jude’s character traits that managed to endear her to me despite the initial difficulties I encountered given her prickly demeanor, but the quality of Taryn’s responses makes it abundantly clear she has… gone quite native and that trusting her might prove ultimately dangerous. Jude’s relationship with Madoc is burdened with worse problems, though: in my review of The Cruel Prince I mentioned Stockholm’s Syndrome when referring to the two of them, and here that ambiguity is far more pronounced, where Jude knows he is one of her adversaries, and yet keeps wanting to prove her worth – even as she tries to obstruct his plans.
If middle books sometimes tend to disappoint after a riveting beginning, The Wicked King raises the stakes in a major way, adding more levels of uncertainty to an already thorny situation, and given the very unexpected outcome at the end of the book, one that literally pulled the rug from under my feet, I can’t wait to see how the story will be wrapped up in the upcoming third volume, The Queen of Nothing. Anything, literally anything could happen…