Updated: Dec 17, 2019
The Wicked King by Holly Black is the incredible follow up to The Cruel Prince, and it delivers on everything I had expected and then some.
SPOILER ALERT: While I pride myself on not including any spoilers in my reviews, this is the second book in a trilogy. Some of the info in this review is a spoiler for the first book, so if you haven’t read The Cruel Prince, stop reading or you’ll know some information that you shouldn’t know upfront.
Okay. Now that we have that out of the way … let’s get this party started!
This book picks up 5 months after the ending of The Cruel Prince, when Jude has used Oak to crown Cardan, making him High King of Elfhame, then hidden Oak in the mortal realm with Vivi, her oldest sister. Jude has bound Cardan to herself for a year and a day, and is functioning as the seneschal and the power behind the throne. The Faerie realm is just as dangerous as ever, and Jude is caught up in trying to navigate the political alliances as well as trying to manage Cardan, who continues to be difficult to control. Amidst all of these troubles, chaos looms on the horizon. Someone close to Jude is planning to betray her, while Jude’s twin sister Taryn is preparing to wed Locke, Cardan’s friend. Jude struggles to figure out who the traitor is, even as it threatens her own life and the lives of everyone she cares about. But she’s racing against the clock and dealing with the ever-present complication of being a mortal in the Faerie realm.
Once again, the best way to describe this is a direct quote from the book: “beautiful and terrible.” The writing is simple but absolutely stunning, and Faerie is deceptively lovely but terrifyingly scary at the same time. It’s a cruel and wild place, where the safety of mortals is precarious at best. Revels at the court of the High King of Elfhame are lush and described beautifully, from the meals to the finery that is worn:
“Wine is brought in colored carafes. They glow aquamarine and sapphire, citrine and ruby, amethyst and topaz. Another course comes, with sugared violets and frozen dew.”
“She wears a dress of purple that is peacock blue when it catches the light. Her hair is woven into a braid that circles her head, and at her brow is a chain from which dangle dozens upon dozens of beads in sparkling purples and blues and amber.”
Even the darker emotions are portrayed in a way that I’ve never seen before, but that makes perfect sense when you read these books:
“And in his eyes, I see a well of hate so deep that I fear that if we’re not careful, all of Elfhame may drown in it.”
Nothing in this world is simple, and this book really captures that perfectly.
This book is built upon the foundation that was laid out in the previous one, and further expands it. The land of Faerie is described pretty thoroughly in The Cruel Prince, with a wide array of folkloric creatures (pixies, nixies, faeries, selkies, hobs, gobs, spriggans, trolls, merfolk, etc.). In this book, we get more perspective on certain creatures. I’m not sure if I just didn’t realize or if it wasn’t really touched on before now, but there’s a sense that there are certain creatures that are elves or fauns. The Faerie folk come in so many varieties, with horns and hooves, pointed ears, fluttering wings, bodies of deer, sharp teeth and claws, or under the sea with tails and sealskins. There’s also more of a glimpse of the Undersea realm. (Don’t worry; it’s just as scary as the land realm). Additionally, since Jude is closer to the High King, we learn a lot more about how he’s connected to his kingdom:
“A High King is tied to the land and to his subjects. A king is a living symbol, a beating heart, a star upon which Elfhame’s future is written… Surely you have noticed that since his reign began, the isles are different. Storms come in faster. Colors are a bit more vivid, smells are sharper.”
Elfhame is a world that is extraordinarily open to different types of sexuality. Orgies seem to be the norm, and the former king (Cardan’s father) openly had a relationship with a human man. Being gay or bisexual doesn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary in the Faerie realm, and I think that this is a refreshing change of pace to see in literature. Hopefully, this is one aspect we can carry over into the mortal realm.
Taryn seems to fare better with her tendency to keep her head down, stay out of trouble, and avoid making waves by all means. Jude, on the other hand, is stubborn and headstrong, and appears to be unable to avoid trouble. She has worked hard to be more like Taryn in this way, but hasn’t done a great job so far:
“I spent so many revels avoiding notice. Now everyone sees me…”
She’s currently the power behind the throne, letting Cardan wear the crown while she is secretly running the show. She’s grown a bit since the last book ended, but the power is starting to change her:
“But I cannot deny that the power I hold gives me a kick, a jolt of pleasure whenever I think on it. I just wish Cardan couldn’t tell.”
“I consider the rush of pleasure that I felt at my temporary triumph … the thrill of being the power behind the throne, the worrying satisfaction I had … And now that I have found in myself a taste for power, will I be loath to give it up?”
“For five months I have tried to use every bit of restraint I learned over a lifetime of keeping my head down. I have tried to behave as though I had only dribs and drabs of power, an important servant’s power, and still keep in my head that I was in charge. A balancing act that makes me think of Val Moren’s lesson in juggling.”
Jude has spent more than half of her life in a world where her kind is exploited and looked down upon. She has been the butt of bullying and cruel pranks, taunted for the mere fact that she is mortal in an immortal realm. The only thing that has saved her is the status her adoptive father holds in the court of the High King, and the strategies he has taught her over the years. This has been a double-edged sword for Jude though, being raised by the man who brutally slaughtered her parents while she watched at age 7. She trusts almost no one, and has basically no ability to cope with any sort of emotion:
“I shove the memory away as fiercely as possible. I shove it along with the enormous vulnerability I feel, the sensation of being exposed down to my raw nerves.”
When she gains some access to power, it starts to change her. How could it not? It’s all she’s wanted, even though it doesn’t change her true position in the kingdom. It doesn’t protect her from her emotions, though. She’s very smart, and absorbs the lessons she’s been taught, even though she doesn’t always follow what she’s been told to do. She does what she thinks is best, even when it isn’t always the smartest path in the eyes of others. And she ALWAYS plays her cards close to the vest. Since she doesn’t trust anyone else, she keeps her own counsel at all times. Sometimes this works out well, but other times it doesn’t. She has a moral code, even if it doesn’t make sense to others. And she’s amazing at playing up her weaknesses. But she has a few major flaws. Her biggest one is thinking she's in control of everything. Her weird relationship with Cardan plays into this flaw. She wants to control the situation and has literally placed him under her command, and I think that their strange dynamic goes hand in hand with her trauma history and her inability to trust:
“Something is really wrong with me, to want what I hate, to want someone who despises me, even if he wants me, too. My only comfort is that he doesn’t know what I feel.”
Cardan isn’t willing to continue being controlled even for the year and a day he had agreed to. We learn a little more about Jude’s parents and Cardan’s upbringing. Jude has a LOT of balls in the air in this book, and while she is good at a lot of things, juggling isn’t one of her strongest skills. As she struggles to balance everything on her plate – running a kingdom, managing Cardan, handling a hate-love relationship that seems to be more hate than love, constantly looking over her shoulder, making amends with her twin, worrying about her little brother, keeping tabs on her older sister, dealing with an entire group of people who do not respect her simply because she is a human, running her group of spies, as well as wondering how she will repay her debts, something has to give.
You know how when you’re really into a book and you get fully immersed in the story and something shocking happens, and you can’t help but gasp out loud? Well, that’s what I call the gasp factor. A really good book will often have me doing that even in a public place. Yes, I do get funny looks. Yes, it even happens if I’m at home. Yes, even my family gives me funny looks, even though they know me well enough to expect the gasp factor when I’m into a great book. Well, that’s the gasp factor. The higher the number, the more shocking the book’s twists and turns are.
Gasp factor: 14
Overall rating: 5 out of 5 stars
I highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in young adult books, fantasy books (or is even thinking about getting into fantasy books), or likes books involving strong-willed female protagonists. I'd definitely suggest starting with The Cruel Prince first, but this is a great series. It was one of the first fantasy series that I started reading, and paved the way for me to enjoy not only fantasy, but also YA books in general.
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