Fairy Politics and Forbidden Romance: Holly Black – The Wicked King

Unlike most other people, I did not love The Cruel Prince unconditionally. It was a fun read that offered a refreshingly complex story for a YA book. But apart from the twist at the end, it wasn’t the kind of book that made me go: I need the second one NOW! “Now” has arrived, however, and after reading this sequel, I am definitely among the people who are screaming for the third book. What an exciting ride this was! Spoilers for The Cruel Prince below!!

THE WICKED KING
by Holly Black

Published by: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2019
Hardcover: 336 pages
Audiobook: 10 hours 20 minutes
Series: The Folk of the Air #2
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Jude lifted the heavy practice sword, moving into the first stance – readiness.

You must be strong enough to strike and strike and strike again without tiring.
The first lesson is to make yourself strong.
After the jaw-dropping revelation that Oak is the heir to Faerie, Jude must keep her younger brother safe. To do so, she has bound the wicked king, Cardan, to her, and made herself the power behind the throne. Navigating the constantly shifting political alliances of Faerie would be difficult enough if Cardan were easy to control. But he does everything in his power to humiliate and undermine her even as his fascination with her remains undiminished.
When it becomes all too clear that someone close to Jude means to betray her, threatening her own life and the lives of everyone she loves, Jude must uncover the traitor and fight her own complicated feelings for Cardan to maintain control as a mortal in a Faerie world.

At the end of The Cruel Prince, Jude had maneuvered herself into a precarious position. Yes, she wields incredible power, but that power is bound to run out. Over five months have passed when we rejoin Jude and Cardan at the Faerie Court and their relationship is… strained. Add to that the fact that Orla, the Queen of the Undersea, made a pact with the previous High King and now kind of considers that pact void – because reasons.

The shift in power dynamics between Jude and Cardan makes for excellent drama. Even if there hadn’t been a plot that includes the threat of war with the Undersea, Jude’s relationship with her sister, and her hiding that she is literally pulling the High King’s strings, this would have been enough to keep me entertained. As unhealthy and problematic as it might be, the tension between Jude and Cardan was also so damn sexy. I know I’m bad for liking them, but I just can’t help it. 🙂

I really don’t want to talk too much about the plot because, much like in the first book, there are plenty of things to discover. Jude is warned that someone close to her is a traitor, she meets new characters that reveal interesting things about the people she knows, she learns more of Cardan’s past… And all the while, she is worried about Oak, her sister is preparing to get married, and the Shadow Court is still doing its thing but we get way more insight into everything. Generally, it felt like Black used this second volume to expand her world, to give us a better idea how everything works and how the various political factions influence each other.

Jude is trying to juggle all the players on her Faerie chess board and, naturally, gets herself into the occasional super dangerous situation. This is not an action-packed book but when things get tricky for our protagonist, it’s impossible to put down. There was one chapter in particular that had me at the edge of my seat, filled with worry for Jude, and for the fate of Faerie in general. And apart from that, every scene between Jude and Cardan was just so loaded with tension, unspoken feelings, held-back desires, and struggles for power that I just couldn’t stop reading. Cardan also grew as a character which made it much easier for me to understand how Jude feels about him. In the first book – no matter how the ending tries to justify it – he was just an asshole. A cruel, heartless bastard who enjoys the pain of others. But here, we discover that there’s more to him than we first thought. He may still be a jerk most of the time, but he also has moments that show that there is definitely good in him.

For the middle book of a trilogy, this was truly a stunning novel. Most middle books don’t really do much to further the plot but rather set up the grand finale. That is the case here, too, but the book would also work really well as a standalone. It has its own story arc that would work well by itself, but of course, it also furthers the greater conflict of the succession to the Court, of Jude coming into her own and finding who she wants to be.

Without spoilers, let me tell you that the ending was again mind-blowing! Holly Black makes you feel that you kind of know what’s going to happen, then turns everything on its head. And then she puts an unexpected knife into her readers’ hearts and twists it around, because she can. I have come to believe that she is an evil genius who enjoys toying with her readers – and I am absolutely loving it! Now I feel that I am truly a part of all the other fans who are eagerly awaiting the publication of The Queen of Nothing (a title that makes so much sense now).

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Reading the Lodestars: Not-A-Hugo for Best YA Novel

I’m still reading the nominated works for this year’s Hugo Awards. It’s just that challenges and readathons took preference recently. I won’t be able to finish all the books I intended to read in time but then again, I knew that going in. I have read all of the Lodestar nominees except for one. My top spot was clear very early on and hasn’t changed after catching up on the other nominees.

The Nominees for the Lodestar Award

  1. Rachel Hartman – Tess of the Road
  2. Holly Black – The Cruel Prince
  3. Justina Ireland – Dread Nation
  4. Tomi Adeyemi – Children of Blood and Bone
  5. Peadar O’Guilín – The Invasion
  6. Dhonielle Clayton – The Belles

My top pick by a large margin is Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman. It’s a very special kind of book that takes the reader on a journey both literally with its protagonist and figuratively, while reading. Although it’s a quiet book that focuses on character growth, there’s always something happening. I grew to love Tess fiercely and I also found myself caring for the people she met on her journey. Hartman’s world building is intriguing and as someone who hasn’t read the Seraphina books, made me want to go out and read everything she’s written. The writing is beautiful, the message is amazing, this was really a wonderful book that I can’t recommend enough.

The only bookI had already read when the nominees were announced was The Cruel Prince by Holly Black. I liked that book, especially the way its characters were definitely not black or white, and the world building and complex political intrigues felt like Holly Black trusted her young readers to be smart enough to get it – I always appreciate authors who write YA as if their readers had a brain. 🙂 The only thing it was missing was a plot that could hook me throughout. It was a good book and I’ll continue the series, it just felt like this book mostly set up everything for the rest of the series. That ending, however, had one of the most twisty twists that truly surprised me. And because it’s a book that I have kept thinking about ever since reading it (right when it came out), it gets the second place on my ballot.

The next two books may yet switch places on my ballot because they were both good but not great, they both had certain things really going for them, but others that I felt needed a lot more work. For the moment, my number three is Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation. When I think about this book, the first thing that comes to mind is the voice of its wonderful protagonist. She’s a cheeky one, I love how she tells her story, and that made the entire book a joy, even when the plot kind of meandered. Which is also the novel’s biggest flaw. Former slaves, now sort-of-freed (but not really because people are assholes), are trained to fight against the zombie hordes that started rising up during the Civil War. The plot starts one way and made me expect certain things, but then stayed kind of put and focused on a small side quest. I assume, the bigger plot will be the story of the entire series and I’ll probably read the second part to see if I’m right.

My number four is probably lots of people’s number one. Whether it was the massive hype that biased my expectations or the gorgeous cover (I won’t pretend I’m immune), Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone was a bit of a letdown. It was truly a fun ride, a great adventure story with some interesting world building and particularly cool magic, but the story was just so predictable. As soon as the group arrived at a new place, I knew where it was going. And inevitably, the plot did go that way. The same goes for the romances. They were very obvious from the start and while that’s not a bad thing (because they were very well done), I was hoping for something a little more original. With all the rave reviews out there, I thought this would have a plot twist or two, would surprise me. But except for the very ending, I kind of knew the entire story before it happened. It was fun enough, however, for me to continue the series.

The only book I didn’t get to yet, but hopefully will before voting ends, is The Invasion by Peadar O’Guilín. I did read the first part of this duology, so I have some idea of the author’s style and world building. I liked The Call well enough. Mostly, it kept me reading for the sheer horror of what’s happening in this version of Ireland. Sometime during your teenage years, you will be whisked away to the Grey Land (a dark sort of Fairyland) where you’ll have to survive for 24 hours – only a few minutes in our world – or be killed by the fairies hunting you. Even the people who do come back alive are changed, physically and psychologically. It was a thrilling book that could have used a few more pages spent on character development, in my opinion.

My least favorite of the bunch was The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton. Here, the supposed plot twists were even more obvious than in Adeyemi’s novel. But it also didn’t have much else going for it. The writing itself was okay, it was a quick read, but I thought the villain was over-the-top, and the story didn’t manage to get me interested. My biggest pet peeve was probably the world building because I’m generally willing to suspend my disbelief (I read mostly fantasy, so obviously) but this world just didn’t make sense. Sure, the protagonist is a Belle and so only sees a certain part of her world that has to do exclusively with beauty and appearance and royalty. But nowhere is it mentioned how this society would even work and I kept asking myself very often where food comes from, how poor people live, and so on. It was not a bad book but it wasn’t a very good one either.

So this is the current state of my Lodestar ballot. Depending on how good The Invasion is, places may change yet. The last category I’m tackling (and won’t finish) is the Best Series nominees. There will be one series of which I haven’t read a single book, but with the others, I have at least read one book or novella. I honestly don’t think that’s enough to form a proper opinion on the entire series, but  it’s the only thing I have to go on. And I have the suspicion that if The Laundry Files or the October Daye series don’t win this year, they will be back next year. At least I’ll have a head start for then.

Holly Black – The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

And slowly my faith in YA fantasy is restored. I had known about Holly Black for years but never did start her Tithe series. Then I saw a post about The Darkest Part of the Forest which ticked off all sorts of boxes. But I couldn’t wait to try out this author – throw in a handful of great reviews of her vampire novel (yes, I picked up a vampire novel!) and here we are.

coldest girl in coldtownTHE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN
by Holly Black

Published by: Little Brown, 2013
Ebook: 306 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Tana woke lying in a bathtub.

Tana lives in a world where walled cities called Coldtowns exist. In them, quarantined monsters and humans mingle in a decadently bloody mix of predator and prey. The only problem is, once you pass through Coldtown’s gates, you can never leave.
One morning, after a perfectly ordinary party, Tana wakes up surrounded by corpses. The only other survivors of this massacre are her exasperatingly endearing ex-boyfriend, infected and on the edge, and a mysterious boy burdened with a terrible secret. Shaken and determined, Tana enters a race against the clock to save the three of them the only way she knows how: by going straight to the wicked, opulent heart of Coldtown itself.

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I think it’s safe to say the world is over vampire romances. Which does not mean that when a good one comes along, we won’t enjoy it. Holly Black has taken the vampire myth and put it firmly into the modern world. People in this world know that there are vampires and, in order to keep them from spreading all over the place, have created Coldtowns. But like any other town, big or small, these Coldtowns don’t just exist within their own closed-off culture, they share something with the rest of humanity that many novels still like to forget or ignore: the fucking internet!

The story begins with Tana waking up in a bathtub after a long (and apparently wild) party. A few minutes and one walk through the house later, she realises everybody is dead. Everybody, that is, except her newly infected ex-boyfriend and a vampire in chains. Being a decent person, Tana rescues both of them from the group of vampires responsible for the bloodbath. Being in danger of infection herself, the only place of safety – hers and that of her family – is the nearest Coldtown. So that’s where they go. On the way, they pick up two bloggers desperate to be turned into vampires – it’s a regular Coldtown party.

In Coldtown, things are very different from what I expected. It becomes clear early on that the place is full of both vampires and humans, some of them out for eternal life, others just to report the news from the inside. Bloggers, Vloggers, Reality TV vampire hunters – you name it, Coldtown’s go it. The amount of social media, camera coverage, celebrity status and murder-on-tv is both disconcerting and realistic. That’s what the world is like, after all. You see a picture of someone saving someone else from drowning and wonder why the person taking the picture didn’t drop the camera to help. Coldtown is like that.

Holly Black doesn’t ride on the vampire myth for long, expecting some basic knowledge from her readers. Drinking blood is terrifying and sexy and messy and a necessity of un-life. We know that. But there is one scene – my favorite in the entire book – that encompasses all of these aspects with utter perfection. All I’ll tell you is that it involves a kiss.

Gazing at her for a long moment with something like horror, as though he was seeing her for the first time, he spoke.
“You are more dangerous than daybreak.”

As my readers know, what I care most about in any given book is the characters. Tana made a great protagonist, in that she is a decent human being who doesn’t let friends die to save her own ass. She has almost lost her life and did lose a parent because of the infection but there is no denying the positive aspects of eternal life. Tana’s awareness and her constant questioning of her own feelings and wishes was refreshing to read. She doesn’t blindly run into the new life as a vampire, she tries to remain human. Because she knows that she doesn’t know just what being a vampire entails. I was particularly impressed with the description of her relationship with ex-boyfriend Aidan. Boy, oh boy, I used to know someone just like that – which made the description all the more vivid and believable. But Aidan (unlike that person I knew) has redeeming qualities that make him an acceptable sidekick. In fact, he is almost annoyingly sweet when he wants to be.

Mysterious and sexy, Gavriel is the picture-perfect romantic interest. I didn’t really see any sparks flying until Tana took the initiative (which was awesome), and generally felt we didn’t see enough interaction between Gavriel and Tana to explain their feelings. In the end, very deep feelings seem to already be there. Yes, there is an explanation for their attraction to each other, but love? Nah. But a little suspension of disbelief is necessary for most romantic fantasies I’ve read. Maybe I’m just cold-hearted… Gavriel’s past, however, was highly interesting and the chapters recounting it among my favorites in the entire book. He walks the edge between cunning and insanity and because of that, turned out not to be the stereotypical romantic hero. I loved his unpredictability, the mystery surrounding him and the slow unravelling of his past.

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What didn’t sit well with me was how small Coldtown felt. We are told several times that politics within Coldtown are complex, how large it’s grown, how many diverse people and creatures populate it. But the plot sticks with only a handful of settings, remaining much more small scale than I had hoped. Blog coverage is instant so anything that happens to Tana in the vicinity of cameras gets out to the wider world immediately. But being told “You’re famous now” and actually seeing the results of that fame are two things that make a lot of difference. I would have liked more showing, less telling when it came to certain aspects of Coldtown. And I would have loved if one of the settings wasn’t the most famous vampire’s villa. You know, just to mess with readers’ expectations.

The novel touches upon many topics that invite you to think for yourself and for that I applaud it. Eternal life, insta-romance, fame and surveillance, sacrifice and love, it’s all in there. But a little more depth wouldn’t have hurt. Add a couple of hundered pages and you’ve got an excellent book whose merit even YA-haters can’t deny. The ending was surprisingly quiet and, at first, a little disappointing. But the more I think about it, the more I see its perfection, its inevitability. There is beauty in how this story ends. Holly Black doesn’t outright tell us what Tana’s future will be like but for my part at least, I felt an overwhelming rush of hope.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

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