The Cruel Prince Turns Violence Into Romance

Hello, everyone! YA fantasy is not my favorite genre, but at my friend’s request I decided to read Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince. I finished it in about two days, reading through the night so that I wouldn’t keep myself up wondering what would happen next. The Cruel Prince is unlike any novel I’ve read in that it features a female protagonist who is almost amoral, incredibly ambitious, physically violent, and whose femininity is a barely mentioned part of her identity. Refreshing as it was to read through the eyes of such a character, the novel nevertheless falls prey to one of the worst tropes in YA Fiction: the damaged, abusive, “bad-boy” love interest. These two competing elements battle against each other throughout the book, resulting in a work that simultaneously breaks stereotypes and renews them. I can’t say for sure whether I liked this book, but it certainly made me think about what a girl wants in fictional relationships. If The Cruel Prince is any indication, a girl wants masochism.

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Synopsis: 17-year-old Jude has lived in the land of Faerie for over a decade, since Madoc, the High King’s war general, murdered her parents and stole her, her twin Taryn, and her older sister Vivi away. As a mortal in Faerie, Jude is constantly reminded of her weakness and inferiority, especially by Prince Cardan and his friends, who take pleasure in humiliating her. Determined to make a place for herself in their world, she becomes a spy for Dain, the heir apparent, and becomes enmeshed in the politics and intrigue of the Faerie court, setting herself against her family, her friends, and worst of all, Cardan, the cruel prince himself.

My thoughts: There’s plenty to praise in Black’s novel, the first in the Folk of The Air trilogy. First off, her world-building is splendid. She melds old-world traditional folklore, such as European creatures like nixies, brownies, and hobbs, with her own modern creations, like nevermore, a Faerie-style cocaine, and the bohemian morals of the Faerie court. In a market saturated with fairy fantasy YA novels, Black distinguishes her world of Faerie by giving her world the ruthless quality of old-school Greek gods.

Few of the characters in Black’s novel can be characterized as purely “good” or “bad.” For instance, Jude’s adopted father Madoc is driven by a thirst for blood, killing those he loves just as easily as those he despises. The princes Balekin and Dain kill to further their own agendas and have no qualms about destroying those who get in their way. Humiliation and misery are entertainment to Faerie, who value beauty and strength above all. It’s ingrained in their culture to punish and torture those below them, like Jude and her sister Taryn. Black doesn’t really comment on this culture of apathy and violence. As readers, we’re not supposed to decide whether Faerie culture is good or bad, or whether Jude should want to become a part of it. We’re just supposed to observe, and I appreciated Black for crafting a Faerie world that wasn’t as sparkly and cutesy as the others.

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Perhaps the most morally dubious character in the novel is the protagonist, Jude. She’s driven primarily by rage, years of humiliation, and a need for power. She solves her problems through violence, dueling, deception, and murder. And she doesn’t really feel bad about any of it. If she sounds like a psychopath, that’s because she probably is. There are many qualities that I admired in Jude, like how she is brave and daring, how she stands up for herself,  and how she chases after her passions, but there’s a lot about her that scared me. I couldn’t decide if I was supposed to root for her destructive plans, or see the insanity in them.

There’s been a lot of public discourse about how important it is to write morally complex female characters, because to do otherwise is to keep female characters on a pedestal of purity. Holly Black fulfills this mandate by removing the question of gender completely from her novel. There is no gender divide in occupation or in status in Faerie, nor is there any difference in morality. Jude could have easily been a male character with barely a change in the story, and her gender-neutral name helps with that. While I applaud Black for creating this gender-neutral world, and hope it can set a precedent for other novels, I do worry that when we have protagonists like Jude who are completely devoid of any moral compass, where does that leave us? Holly Black may be challenging us with the idea of an ambition-driven, amoral female protagonist, but she’s writing in the YA genre, which means millions of readers are going to identify with Jude, because that’s what YA is for. They want readers to identify with the protagonist and dream about the protagonist’s love interest. And when the protagonist is basically a psychopath and the love interest is an abusive asshole, these readers are fantasizing about some fucked- up desires. Which brings me to the worst part of the book: Prince Cardan.

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There’s a reason I can’t get down with YA books, and that’s because they all feature men like Prince Cardan as love interests. With these guys, you can tick off every box on a list of red flags and then some. Prince Cardan is egotistical, emotionally abusive, verbally abusive, and physically abusive. He humiliates Jude for over a decade (ever since she came to Faerie), constantly demeans her with insults, and stands by while his friends try to harm her and abuse her. He shoves her, slaps her, pulls her hair, threatens her, etc, etc. He repeatedly tells her that he hates her. In any other context, he would be a despicable villain. But because this is a YA novel, and because he’s HOT, Jude likes him.

Sure, she says she hates him, and he’s her worst enemy and all that, but all he has to do is tell her that he finds her attractive and she breaks down. This is what I hate about YA. Prince Cardan tells Jude that he hates her because he can’t stop thinking about her and that DISGUSTS him. He finds his attraction to her disgusting! And then he becomes the love interest. What the hell is up with this trope? Why on Earth are these books romanticizing relationships from men whose “love” is inseparable from cruelty, humiliation, and hate? Jude’s twin Taryn even provides a justification for this, stating that Faeries love differently than mortals. Their “love” is a test. Well, fuck that. It would be one thing if Cardan wasn’t rewarded for his abusive “love,” but he is. The worse he treats Jude, the more she’s enthralled by him. He’s excused by his swagger, his good looks, and the fact the he lusts after her. It doesn’t matter what horrible things he says to her or what violent acts her commits against her, as long as he finds her attractive, she’s in his power.

I can’t believe that YA novels are still doing this. Every time I read a character like this, I forget that he’s written by an adult woman instead of a LONELY EMO BOY. These are not healthy relationships! Cruelty does not equal a secret, hidden affection! Why can’t Jude be courted by a kind, supportive boy, instead of one who treats her like trash?

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I’ll stop myself before this becomes a longer rant, but you get the gist. I’m sick of awesome YA novels like The Cruel Prince shooting themselves in the foot with characters like Prince Cardan. Clearly, I’m a minority here, because the Internet loves Jude and they love Cardan. This genre definitely wasn’t written for me, and I’m not trying to tell people who love the Jude x Cardan relationship how to feel or what to like. But I won’t stop being disappointed by this masochistic approach to a young adult relationship. These type of stories are why the myth of abusive love persists. If your partner hurts you, they don’t love you. That’s all there is to it. I hope Wicked King, the next book in the series, can remember that.

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