Holly Black has played in the world of faeries for as long as she can remember. When she was a child, her mother would enchant her with ghost stories, convince her that their house was haunted and even set up scavenger hunts for her to find little indications of faeries around their neighborhood.
“I grew up with a great deal of belief in the supernatural,” Black says during a call to her home in western Massachusetts, where it’s a damp, misty day. “It seemed very possible that the faerie world was always just around the corner. And when you really believe, it seems a lot scarier.”
Black went on to read, fall in love with and draw inspiration from the original folklore and art of faeries—which are far darker than most people realize. Faeries are “often seen as kind of Tinker Bell-y in that pastel, friendly way,” Black says. “But the original folklore is pretty brutal.” Some faeries might “steal people, trick people, lead them astray, off cliffs and into the water where creatures will eat you.” These are the kinds of darker faerie characters that Black explores in many of her bestselling faerie novels, and more deeply than ever in The Cruel Prince, the first book in her new Folk of the Air trilogy.
As The Cruel Prince opens, human twin sisters Jude and Taryn get their first introduction to the creatures of Faerie by way of Madoc, their mother’s first husband and the bloodthirsty grand general of the High Court’s armies. Though he knocks on their door and slaughters their mother and father right in front of them, he is not without honor. He not only takes back his biological, half-faerie daughter, Vivian, who’d been “stolen” from him, but he also agrees to adopt her half-sisters—Jude and Taryn—and return with them to Faerie and raise them as his own.
Ten years pass as Jude and Taryn grow up in Faerie, learning the inner workings of this strange land while being treated like members of the court. The downside to this, however, is that they must attend classes with Prince Carden, the youngest and wickedest son of the High King. But the faerie king will soon abdicate the throne and pass down his crown to one of his many children. This transition of power could unravel the entire, delicate fabric of Faerie—to the advantage of those ready to pounce on any sign of weakness.
Jude and Taryn are determined to carve out a place for themselves. But as Jude digs deeper into Faerie’s dark corners—all the while spying and learning of long-running political intrigues, power games and rivalries—the faeries she meets along the way only further demonstrate how cruel this place can be. As Jude transforms into someone who’s more than just a simple pawn, readers see the intimate duality of her struggle for place and power.
“It seemed very possible that the faerie world was always just around the corner. And when you really believe, it seems a lot scarier.”
Fans of Black’s faerie realm will recognize this tale as new territory: “Most [faerie] stories are set in our [human] world and are about a kid from Faerie who was switched,” Black explains, but The Cruel Prince “isn’t about just one person stumbling into a faerie situation and maybe learning their own magic.” Set almost entirely in Faerie, with human characters who were raised there and therefore know all the rules, this story reveals greater depth and detail of Faerie than ever before. Black’s characters are no longer playing the game without knowing the consequences, and to her, “that idea of having to rely on your wits and on cleverness, when everybody else has magic, is really interesting.”
Black unfolds this sweeping, twisting narrative with the fine-tuned understanding of someone who’s spent nearly her whole life poking around the depths of Faerie. It’s just what fans expect from the beloved author, whose various faerie books have sold over 2.5 million copies. To date, she has published more than 30 novels, and her Spiderwick Chronicles, co-crafted with Tony DiTerlizzi, were made into a feature film. But for all her critical acclaim and reader appreciation, it was her 2014 Newbery Honor for Doll Bones that engendered the greatest transformation in how she viewed herself as a writer.
“I grew up seeing those stickers on books and knowing those were ‘the good books,’ ” Black says. “When you’re a person who writes fantasy, you’re usually thought of in a different way—as a genre writer—and genre writers are often seen as not serious. So it really was a big shift in my view of my own writing to think that it could be seen as a serious work, as something that was objectively good.”
To put it mildly, The Cruel Prince is definitely good. The singular reading experience continues in the upcoming second book in the planned trilogy, which finds Black’s characters in a much larger political arena within Faerie. As Black gleefully explains, we’ll get to watch with bated breath as her cast of human and faerie characters learns “how everyone wants power for their own reasons—and how much harder it is to keep that power than it is to get it.”
Justin Barisich is a freelancer, satirist, poet and performer living in Atlanta. More of his writing can be found at littlewritingman.com.
Author photo by Sharona Jacobs