by Katie Moran
The Cruel Prince by Holly Black: A Review
Holly Black’s newest novel The Cruel Prince thrusts us swiftly and unapologetically into the gruesome world of Faerie. In The Cruel Prince, sisters Vivi, Taryn, and our main character, Jude are stolen away to a world as beautiful as it is dangerous, after witnessing the red cap named Madoc murder their parents for reasons they don’t understand. Faerie is a world where their captor has now become their stand in parent, protector and means of survival. Black’s novel then moves forward ten years and readers learn that the vibrant brutality of Faerie has contoured the shapes of each sister with severe precision.
Taryn, Jude’s identical twin and the youngest of the three sisters, has completely resigned to her fate as a mortal in Faerie. She shows little resistance in playing the submissive role of the outsider to the powerful fae that surround her. She seeks only to exist, amassing as little notice as possible, even if avoiding controversy carries the cost of betrayal. Vivi, the eldest of the girls and half fae herself, is miserable, or as miserable as someone can be in this intoxicating world. She seeks to be a thorn in Madoc’s side at every opportunity, as repayment for the life he stole from her. Vivi maintains one foot in the mortal realm at all times; her longing for the normalcy of her life before Madoc is palpable within the pages. She stays in Faerie only for her sisters’ benefit. Jude, our protagonist, is neither longing to leave nor begging to stay. She struggles with her place in Faerie as it is, but is most uncertain about how she would exist outside of it. On the cusp of adulthood, her inner turmoil and the fear ingrained in her very being pushes her on the most dangerous path of all. Jude seeks power in a world where she is all but powerless.
The struggle between the powerful and powerless is key in The Cruel Prince. Our protagonist Jude lacks the key weaponry that those of the Fae all possess, their magic. The fae’s magic is their greatest strength, a weapon used against Jude time and again, and one she struggles fiercely to avoid. Their ability of persuasion and knack for enchantments leaves any mortal helpless. It is within this power struggle that we are introduced to Cardan, a vicious prince of Faerie and one of Jude’s adversaries. He is by mortal standards wicked at his core lacking any empathy or goodness that Jude can see. He represents the essence of most of Faerie’s inhabitants; he is cruel, sneaky and arrogant. He loathes the mundane and carries a heavy hatred for Jude. The two work, within the novel, as jaded counter characters. If Jude is operating under the impression of fairness and safety, Cardan is wicked for amusement, secure in his position which leaves him mostly unafraid. As the story progresses, we see their battle of wills take place. Cardan maintains his power through force and trickery, while Jude maintains her own sort of power in how fiercely she opposes Cardan and what he stands for. She is the revolutionary to his tyrant.
This kind of skewed power dynamic is frequent in The Cruel Prince. Jude and Taryn are among the only humans in Faerie who aren’t being forcibly held there. They are treated as part of the Gentry class of fae, gaining access to an elevated social status as a result of Madoc’s title as the King’s General. Madoc, though a murderer, abides by his own morality and sense of retribution and has vowed to care for the girls. The other inhabitants of Faerie are not under the same self-inflicted obligation, and so we bear witness to the oppressors who wield the magic, and the oppressed who lack any. Jude is openly tormented for her unwavering stance against the cruelty she and her sister are so frequently subjected to. Taryn’s demure submissiveness means that she is eventually left alone, unless she is used as a pawn to pierce through Jude’s nerve. In The Cruel Prince, we are shown through the lucrative imagination of Holly Black the fate of the meek who do nothing, and the triumphs and hardships of those who step into open battle with their oppressors.
It is Jude’s sense of morality that perpetuates the idea of a heroine capable of behavior rivaling those she opposes under the banner of rightness. She, who rises up to contend with the corruption of the ruling class. Black has meticulously constructed Jude’s character allowing the savagery of her survival instincts to remain at the forefront, while maintaining the integrity of a relatable and flawed protagonist with a strong moral compass in this high-stake environment. Frequently Jude must decide what is right and wrong for herself and those she cares about. She stands up for those that she believes are unfairly wronged though this path sometimes leads to murder and leaving corpses in her wake. She operates on a moral plane that sets her opposite almost everyone else, pushing beyond her limits and sometimes her means to achieve something almost imperceptible – dignity and the right to life. On the edge of adulthood, Jude’s motives are to secure safety and equality for herself and others like her amongst the fae. She seeks a future that lacks the constant fear of her childhood. Jude strives for fairness and goodness. However, she has witnessed cruelty and has been molded by it That cruelty is what makes her capable of the wickedness that characterizes the fae, and it is that wickedness paired with her desire for equality that makes her fierce enough to become a formidable adversary.
Empathy along with forgiveness are imperative to the function of this story. Like our own reality, the absence and presence of both are crucial components of life. It is the capability and willingness of empathizing as a means of achieving forgiveness, and it is often the inability to achieve such a thing that manifests prolonged social and personal conflict. Empathy is an attribute many lack, and without the possibility of fostering a small capacity to do so, there can only be hardness. Jude is the vessel that Black weighs down with the task of showing us that the power of empathy can create understanding without demanding forgiveness. It is empathy that becomes the life force of Cardan and Jude’s evolving relationship, and also those she shares with Taryn, Vivi and Madoc. When Jude sneaks into Hollow Hall, the home of Cardan’s older brother, she is shown the cruelty he suffers every day, suggesting that perhaps his own sense of harshness was not innate, but something lashed into him over time. Later, Jude and Taryn, the previously inseparable twins, come to blows over their differing perspectives on how to live life in Faerie. Jude struggles to make sense of their changed relationship but is intimately familiar herself with the fear Taryn is trying so hard to eradicate from her life. Such revelations fortunately do not ignite torches of compassion or amends, but feed into Jude’s evolving understanding that, above all else, she needs to persevere. Holly Black, through Jude’s many layered relationships, perpetuates the idea that achieving empathy can help facilitate forgiveness and understanding.
Morality, empathy, forgiveness and the struggle for power are all on some level relatable concepts to many of us. There are and will often always be those who seek to oppress others through fear and cruelty. As a result, friend and foe alike can succumb to cowardice or complacency in the face of injustices. If one were to ascribe a moral to The Cruel Prince, it would most certainly be that submission and meekness is harmful in the fact of injustice and serves no greater good besides a selfish self-preservation, at most. As Jude and Cardan learn, before handing down judgement upon a person, no matter their offense, common ground and basic understanding should be attempted. Empathy will always be a pinnacle of triumph and even in the moments when we fear it may be impossible to understand another, we could do well to remember Jude, her strong moral compass and her desire to understand.