Spoiler warning! Don’t read this book, or review unless you’ve finished the entire trilogy of The Folk of the Air. The Cruel Prince is the place to start.
This companion book, which I suspect would clock in at novella-length if you removed all the beautiful full-colour illustrations throughout by Rovina Cai, works as part prequel and part sequel to The Folk of the Air trilogy, as well as an alternate POV to several of the series’ events, especially in The Cruel Prince, where Prince Cardan is possibly at his most loathsome.
In this book, told from Cardan’s point of view, we see him and Jude as High King and Queen of Elfhame, riding to the mortal world to deal with a supernatural threat, while Cardan thinks back to several of the events in his life that brought him to such an unlikely place. We see him first as a feral, unwanted child in the palace stables, left to fend for himself and scramble for scraps, encountering a troll woman named Aslog and hearing her tell a story of a stone-hearted boy. This is only the first meeting between Cardan and Aslog, and with each encounter, the story is told, but changes subtly and takes on new meaning and moral.
We also get to see how Cardan is given a place to live by his elder brother Balekin, and molded in his image, but at a terrible price. We find out how he and Nicasia, Princess of the Undersea become friends, and how they eventually join forces with the sadistic Valerian and wicked Locke, and terrorise all around them and give in to their worst excesses. Quite a lot of Cardan’s antipathy and mistreatment of Jude is given some background, to explain some of why Cardan kept lashing out at the woman he would eventually fall for and marry.
For anyone who possibly gave up on the series after the first book, Prince Cardan of Elfhame might seem utterly irredeemable. He certainly did a lot of very dark, cruel, and f**ked up things and treated Jude, her twin sister, and others absolutely appallingly. Even before this story, which attempts to show some of Cardan’s side of things, it became obvious over the course of the series that Cardan was very much a victim of his upbringing and circumstances, and while a prince, really had possibly even less control of his life and destiny than Jude did. It’s also important to remember that none of the faeries in Holly Black’s fantasy world are kind and nice and cannot be held to human morality standards. They are all wicked, manipulative, and untrustworthy and most consider humans utterly beneath them. Ensorcelling humans and forcing them into months or even years of slavelike servitude is entirely common-place, and trickery and deceit are in their nature. It’s not surprising that Cardan saw the human girls being raised to believe themselves equal in rank and stature to true-born faeries as an affront and an insult, especially as they seemed to have a proud father and a loving home, something Cardan himself had never known.
Full review here.