Happy Thursday! I haven’t really done a book review on this blog for quite some time. But, I recently read Holly Black’s The Folk of the Air trilogy, and I have thoughts, lol.
It’s been awhile since I felt like anything pulled me in as much as this series did. And it was somewhat unexpected. I read the first book, The Cruel Prince, early last year, probably a month or so before the pandemic began. I really liked it! But it took me until this past month to read the next two (The Wicked King and The Queen of Nothing). I was so pulled in that I actually went back and re-read The Cruel Prince, then read the other two again before I had to return them to the library. I rarely re-read books at all, let alone this soon after the first read, haha. I was curious to see, though, what clues Holly Black might have sprinkled throughout the series leading up to its conclusion.
So, this post is sort of part book review, part discussion of themes that I liked in the trilogy. First, the review part: top-notch books, five million stars. Lol. (I should note, too, the title of today’s post is borrowed from How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories, a short story collection and companion to TFOTA.)
The series centers around Jude Duarte, a girl whose parents were murdered by the Folk and then raised by their murderer, a redcap named Madoc, in Elfhame. Jude and her twin sister, Taryn, have quite a different upbringing in Elfhame than they would have in the human world, to say the least. The fairy world is one filled with intrigue, epic political rivalries, debauchery, and violence. In the first book, Jude has aspirations of becoming a knight. She craves both physical armor and the respect such a position would grant her, but she’s also, in a sense, armored her emotions, her heart, just to survive as a human in Elfhame.
Jude is a great, and perhaps rare, type of character in YA literature. She is unapologetically ambitious and will do anything to take, and hold onto, even a little bit of power in the fairy world. Especially in the first book, she’s very nearly, if not entirely, a psychopath. She also has a bloodthirsty streak.
There’s actually quite a lot of political intrigue going on in this series, so it’s unfair to boil it down to its central romance. But, what a “romance” it is. Cardan is the youngest prince of Elfhame. When they’re in school together, he and his friends are bullies, and to say Jude hates him is an understatement. Cardan “hates” her at the start, too, although perhaps it’s more fair to say that he hates himself for not actually hating her, a puny human.
If you’re an enemies-to-lovers fan, this is the trilogy for you. And clearly from some of the reviews I’ve seen after finishing the series, not everyone is a fan of this, and that’s fine. This aspect of the book seems to have gotten some slack because Cardan is, of course, a bully at the beginning, and for some readers, that’s a deal breaker. But, although I think it’s fair to say a relationship like this doesn’t translate well to real life (and it doesn’t have to), I love the themes Holly Black is able to explore with this dynamic.
Because it’s true, Cardan is cruel at the start of the series (although some of his friends are arguably worse), but Jude is also horrible, in her way. Like I said, she will do anything to get ahead, to feel like she has at least some control in a world she knows is against her. And this includes tricking, lying, and controlling Cardan in The Wicked King. Cardan has a troubled past that explains much of why he is the way he is, and he grows out of this by the end of the series. One of the themes of the trilogy is that boys can change, and I actually think this is really important. Not in a sense that you should be in a relationship with someone who bullies you (you absolutely shouldn’t), but in a more general sense. Like, honestly, boys absorb a lot of toxic messages, whether they’re aware of it or not, about what it means to be a man. But, as you get older, you can learn new things – realize what you’ve been taught or raised to believe isn’t necessarily true – and change your perspective as a result.
Jude, too, goes through a learning process throughout the series. She comes to learn that loving someone doesn’t mean controlling them. The emotional armor she’s built around herself begins, slowly, to chip away.
I think this trilogy’s themes also resonated with me because (shameless plug alert), it reminded me of what I was trying to do in my Reborn series. In Reborn and Relapse, Siobhan and Jasper have a pretty toxic relationship. They could both use a lesson in love does not equal control. Jasper blatantly manipulates Siobhan in the first book, believing he has her best interests in mind. In the second book, I try to reverse their roles a bit. Jasper is starting to come around, disliking the darker version of himself he’s become. And, despite everything, he does love Siobhan. She knows this. She knows this, exploits it because she gets something from him, too – but can’t give herself entirely to him, emotionally. Siobhan, in this way, is hurting him right back; she’s aware of it, but she goes ahead with it, anyway.
Another aspect of Holly Black’s trilogy I appreciated was the way she reversed gender roles. In addition to wanting to become a knight, Jude has many of the personality traits that, if we do see them, we usually see them in male characters. Like I said, she’s shamelessly ambitious, needs to control everything, and has a penchant for solving problems with violence. And, this is a bit superficial, but I also love how Cardan is the “flashy” one, ha. Jude does get dressed up in the books, but she tends to gravitate toward more practical clothing, while Cardan’s closets are full of fancy attire.
Anyway, these kinds of role reversals are what I like to see in books, and also what I tried to incorporate in Retribution. I want to see heroines who are ambitious, complicated, controlling, bloodthirsty, unapologetic. “Monster” girls, as Holly Black might say.
If you are a fan of YA, fantasy, and romance, I highly recommend The Folk of the Air books!