Despite my love of thorny, enemies-to-lovers couples and court intrigue, I was not one of The Cruel Prince‘s immediate devotees. I found Holly Black’s worldbuilding, with its notes taken from classical sources and thoughtful approach to the mortals-in-Faerie problem, rich and intriguing, but ultimately not to the scale that would let me believe in the danger at hand. Faerie felt altogether too intimate, what, with its tiny graduating class and power plays conducted in between lectures.
Blasphemously, I was also “meh” on Jurdan, the pairing of Jude, a prickly mortal who cannot breathe without having a bone to pick, and Cardan, her opposite and equal in a fae fuckboy. (Argue semantics, if you wish, in the comments.)
Every now and then, the time comes for me to eat my words. The Wicked King, an absolute knockout of a sequel, is one such occasion.
First and most urgently addressed is an expansion of the world of the series. In The Cruel Prince, even with the help of distant fae courts and a cleverly-drawn magical history, the population and influence of Elfhame never escaped, to me at least, the sense that it was too small to be worth fighting over.
Putting high school and its archetypal cliques into the mix, however, was the one choice that proved fatal. This forever cemented in my mind the lingering suspicion that, even having exchanged the lecture hall for the throne room over the course of the book, we never left the petty high school squabbles behind. Even the most iconic Jurdan scenes from the first book felt ever so much like one shoving the other into a locker, despite the very real stakes involved.
But in The Wicked King, two things change that allow Holly Black’s plot construction to escape the specter of triviality. One, she puts a truly powerful contender in the way of Elfhame’s rule by way of the Undersea, a vast conglomerate of what were once independent merfolk courts, thus amplifying the outside pressure and expanding the book’s scope.
Two is deceptively simple: her characters are now in positions of power.
This rather straightforward move ups the ante a priori, but Black does undertake some heavy lifting to make sure there are fitting challenges facing our newly empowered leads now that they’ve moved up in the world. This is where I take back everything I said about The Cruel Prince not being dangerous enough: frustrating though it may have been to read at the time, the book’s dialed back scale turns out to be a massive advantage going forward, almost as if to spite me.
Here’s the thing: it allows the oppositions that will develop in The Wicked King time to form solid foundations. Both Locke and Nicasia, for example, who joined Cardan as Jude’s bullies in book one, become players in the game for power in book two. Just on principle, I would’ve wanted the books to skip straight to where the stakes were actively mounting, but it is in fact the history between the two of them, Cardan, and Jude––the history that was being written while I was rolling my eyes at the triviality of it all––that yields precisely what I want out of conflict, both where it pertains to their roles, and elsewhere: complexity.
The high school drama I pinned as unnecessary before is, to my deepest dismay, very necessary, indeed. The petty jealousy feeds later interactions. The silly feuds make the serious ones more personal. The answer most series fans have for people who didn’t love book one is “just wait.” Unfortunately, in this case, I have to verify. Holly Black was playing the long game all this time. I just wasn’t quick enough to see it.
All of this is to say, I ship Jurdan now, the lot of you were ever-so-right, and I hope you’re very pleased with yourselves.
To wit: where I clocked Cardan as sort of vague upon reading The Cruel Prince, he’s instead enigmatic in The Wicked King. Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t feel as though Black brought us into his head, but in this volume, that move comes into relief as a deliberate one. He’s just as unpredictable, if not more so, than before, but here, it’s a device for the controlled reveal of information that keeps ticking with expert precision until the very end. (And what an end! The internet spoiled me for it years ago and I still ooh’d like my classmate was being called to the principal’s office.)
At least––at least––I had the foresight to be fond of Jude from the very beginning. And how could I not? She’s like Skyward‘s Spensa with the piloting skills swapped in favor of an eye for politics: angry with her world and righteously so, a guttural character study in what it is to bear the sins of one’s father, and all the shame, resentment, and reactive violence that entails. But urged on as both leads are by softer desires (acceptance, actualization, and, in Jude’s case, love without any terms attached), the contrast of that against the spiny shell illuminates a fully realized, self-contradicting human being whom I would, without hesitation, die for. (Or kill for. Either way, what bliss…)
Considering the whole of this infuriating second book that manages to justify the choices of its predecessor in reverse, only one complaint truly carries over. The Court of Shadows remains underdeveloped, and, when a plot twist regarding the Ghost hit, for a moment, I was like “who?”
But, honestly. In the face of my girlish squee-ing all through Act III, I’m happy to savor what I’m given. I’ll save my “um-actually”s for another time.