Book review: “The Cruel Prince” by Holly Black

My wife and I were trying to find a book that we could both enjoy, and it just so happened that The Cruel Prince by Holly Black was on both our reading lists. Jenni has been reading YA fantasy, and this one is apparently a big one in her circles. I forget exactly where I stumbled upon the book, but it was probably one that popped up on my Goodreads feed? I have fallen out of the habit of reading a lot of fiction, but I do pepper my reading with the occasional novel like The Name of the Wind.

The book didn’t capture me like The Way of Kings or The Name of the Wind, but I couldn’t fully describe why. Taste can be such a fickle thing. It wasn’t a bad book; the world was engaging, there was a good dose of suspense that kept you invested, and there were a few surprises. There were a few small quibbles about the narrative Jenni and I agreed on. The introduction doesn’t flow well; we get a few pages of Jude’s life in the human world with her mother, when her birth father, a faerie general, shows up, slaughters his former wife, and abducts his children. The next chapter, we immediately jump 16 years into the future in which Jude has to fill in the holes for the past sixteen years and explain the mechanics of all things faerie. Sure, we will other things along the way, but it results in a lot of telling.

But it doesn’t explain what felt lacking. The only way I could describe it was a lack of moral depth that I have come to expect from fiction. Perhaps I am holding books up to an unfair standard after reading The Stormlight Archives. Not every novel is going to be a philosophical treatise. The main character doesn’t have any real deep moral struggles. She has interests, of course, that she needs to address. She cares for her sisters and her family. She wants to be a part of the world of faerie and feels like an outsider. She wants to do something important and not merely be married off. She has hard feelings towards her father. But while these guide her actions, there is a lack of true wrestle with deeper issues. For instance, Jude is conscripted by the faerie prince Dain as a spy. In one mission, she is instructed to kill an innocent messenger and she expresses no compunction in doing so. As Jude gets involved in the faerie court, it is clear she plays by the rules of Realpolitik. She feels free to uses individuals as means to her ends, which I find very unappealing in someone who is meant to be the protagonist. I think that adequately covers why the book didn’t sit right with me.

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