So. Here we are. A year after my review of the The Cruel Prince. Staring my laptop down, with glassy eyes and a haunted soul, about to embark on my review of The Wicked King, the flail-inducing sequel.
Just. Give me a second. I finished this book two (2) days ago, and my brain is still reeling. You know, set itself on fire, cartwheeling off cliffs, screaming like a banshee, that kind of reeling.
I did not expect this book to take me to that place. I honestly do not know if this review is going to be very coherent, or do the book any justice whatsoever, but here I am, ready to give it my best.
Breathe in, breathe out.
Okay. Here we go.
The Wicked King, by Holly Black, picks up a little after we left off with The Cruel Prince. Jude, our stab-happy human protagonist, has tricked Prince Cardan into becoming the High King of Elfhame, and she has bound him to her command for a year and a day—all so that her little brother, Oak, has a chance at living a happy, normal childhood before he must claim the throne for himself (it’s complicated, read The Cruel Prince if you haven't already). Cardan, puppet though he is, makes it exceedingly difficult for Jude to hold onto her power, and as assassination attempts and political upheaval with a neighboring kingdom come to a boiling point, Jude finds herself nearing her breaking point. Add in the fact that she’s fighting her own father, the head of the military, to keep her power over the throne, and also fighting a losing battle with her growing desire for Cardan.
This book is all about what it takes to win, and what it takes to hold onto that victory. It’s about who Jude must become to hold onto power, and if that’s something she’s willing to do.
Now, that’s all fine and good, and I’ll talk about that more in a sec, but I can’t keep writing this review before screeching about Jude and Cardan.
Jude and Cardan are one of a very small handful of straight couples in YA fiction that I totally and absolutely love with every fiber of my queer, rainbow-loving heart. They’re the epitome of the horrible, self-indulgent, enemies-to-lovers dynamic that I can’t get enough of when it’s done well. These two have so much bad history—Cardan used to humiliate Jude regularly when they were in school together, and he even put her into life-threatening situations on multiple occasions. You know that horrible “it’s because he likes you” excuse adults will give about boys when they torment girls? It’s kind of true in this case.
Cardan isn’t let off the hook for his past behavior, but this book does explore why he was so horrible to Jude and everyone around him. We get a deeper glimpse into his childhood—the mother who didn’t want him, the brother who physically and verbally abused him, the father who all but ignored him. Cardan makes it clear that he’s aware of why he acted the way he did, and that he doesn’t want to be that brutal, needlessly cruel person anymore.
And, to be fair, Jude did almost kill him at the end of book one, and then she bound him to her will and forced him to do the one thing he practically begged her to spare him from: ruling Elfhame.
The push and pull between these two is magnetic, thrilling, and just plain fun, and the way Black leaves things between them at the end of the book? Makes me. Want to. Jump into freezing water and yank trees out of the ground with my bare hands and tear the moon from the sky and swallow it whole.
You think I exaggerate? No. I am SHOOKETH.
There are, of course, many other merits to this book. The world-building is deepened and expanded during the time that Jude spends in the undersea kingdom. It was great to see all the details Black thought of when developing the undersea palace—the way food is magicked to stay dry underwater, more of the cruel ways the Folk use glamour to torment and trick humans, the mer people and selkies who populate the kingdom. We also learn more about the politics of the lower Courts, the prison where the crown’s most despised criminals are held, and, of course, we witness many extravagant parties that are considered wild even by the standards of the Folk.
As for Cardan, I loved to see all the subtle ways he changes in this book through Jude’s eyes—her confusion over his sudden lack of cruelty, her mounting fears that he may be starting to enjoy being king, and the ways his magic begins to change as he becomes more and more tied to the land.
The themes of The Wicked King are some of the strongest parts of this book, and Black does an amazing job of expanding on them from book one and weaving them beautifully into the plot, the antagonists, and Jude’s character arc.
For Jude, love is a complicated emotion—one wrapped in fear, vulnerability, the need to protect, and the desire to trust coupled with a fear to do so. The man who raised her, who taught her how to fight, win, and survive in the world of faery, is the same man who slaughtered Jude’s parents before her very eyes. Jude’s twin sister, Taryan, who used to share everything with Jude, betrayed her to earn the love of a faery who enjoys manufacturing chaos. Jude’s older sister, Vivi, who rarely stepped in to protect Jude or Taryn, has left them for the human world. Jude has known betrayal and heartbreak and fear and grief all of her life, and the way Black navigates how utterly nonsensical and strange the human heart really is, through morally-grey and complex Jude, is masterful.
When it comes down to it, Jude’s complicated relationship with love and trust is the core of this book. Jude faces off with a slew of antagonists in this story who challenge her to face this part of herself again and again. They force her to ask herself if she’s willing to sacrifice her heart to stay in power, or if she can find some way to salvage her humanity in so doing. They demand that she be more like them—either outwit them at their own savage games, or be the powerless, docile human they stupidly continue to mistake her for.
I can’t wait to see where Jude’s story takes us next, because given the massive twist ending, things are about to change drastically.
You can buy The Wicked King and the Barnes and Noble exclusive version at Barnes and Noble for $16.99 in hardcover.
Writer, reviewer, bookseller, book nerd extraordinaire. Fiction reader at Waxwing Magazine.