The Cruel Prince by Holly Black
Jude was seven when her parents were murdered and she and her two sisters were stolen away to live in the treacherous High Court of Faerie. Ten years later, Jude wants nothing more than to belong there, despite her mortality. But many of the fey despise humans. Especially Prince Cardan, the youngest and wickedest son of the High King.
To win a place at the Court, she must defy him–and face the consequences.
As Jude becomes more deeply embroiled in palace intrigues and deceptions, she discovers her own capacity for trickery and bloodshed. But as betrayal threatens to drown the Courts of Faerie in violence, Jude will need to risk her life in a dangerous alliance to save her sisters, and Faerie itself.
This is one of those books where you can hand it to a teen, tell them to read the Prologue, and walk away. That’s all you need to do. If they aren’t hooked after reading that, then you are never going to convince them to read this book. But they’ll probably be hooked. While there is a fair amount of faerie fiction in YA, what makes this book distinct is that it is told from the perspective of a mortal who is forced to grow up in a faerie land alongside faerie royalty. This isn’t just a fantasy novel, but also a Bildungsroman, as well as a slow building thriller, and more. The characters are as strong as the world. This makes it fantastic for teen appeal. Because you can hand it to a wide variety of teens and sell it to each in a different way – just focus on the appeal. Obviously you can hand it to fantasy lovers (especially those with a penchant for faerie stories). You can give it to the dark brooding outsider and tell them about Jude’s isolation and otherness. This is not a one size fits all novel. I can only assume that it shifts in the hands of whatever reader holds it.
If you told me that Holly Black is a faerie with an ability to glamor her readers, I wouldn’t doubt you. I was immediately pulled into a story that is atypical to what I generally gravitate toward. Often in a book I love, there are really strong characters, a premise unlike anything I’ve ever read before, or an amazing world that I want to know more about. Black’s writing contains magic that weaves all of these together into an ethereal story.
The thing that most amazes me about Black’s writing is her ability to create new worlds within the world we know in a way where you do not realize that she is creating a new world. A lot of it feels like a twisted familiar fairytale. Some of it takes place in the world that we occupy as mortals so we know that one. Then there are portions of the story that are new but they are so interesting and enchanting, that you can’t help but want travel further inside the High Court of Faerie. It is a place that simultaneously feels familiar and brand new.
I love a book where the characters are multifaceted. Where you are sure they are one thing and they ultimately contain multitudes. While I understand the use of tropes in writing, it often results in side characters that lack dimension. You will find none of that here. All of these characters are fully developed and full of surprises. That being said, I had trouble keeping track of who was who sometimes. That’s probably more on me than on the book, though, because I don’t do well when everyone is magic and royalty and fantasy and I can’t figure out who is the most important and who is related to who. I get it, though. She doesn’t want you to know that the cruel prince is THE cruel prince from the jump. I figured it out by the end of the book, though.
Figuring out the “if you like” business was hard for this book. I could think of other books that were similar but no movies or tv shows or fandoms or anything came directly to mind. The one thing that I did think was – If you like Once Upon A Time, then read The Cruel Prince. To me it has a similar line between the magic world and the mortal world and a fairytale darkness that you find in the book.
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville—derailing the War Between the States and changing America forever. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.
But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies. And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems.
I know first-hand the appeal of this book because I have handed it to many many teens. All you have to say is “What happens if instead of the Civil War never officially ended because dead soldiers started rising up from the battlefields as zombies?” That’s usually all it takes. But if you have a teen that likes a dystopian novel or a strong female protagonist, this works for that too.
Ireland is a fantastic writer. There was no part of this book that I could not picture as I was reading. It went in a totally different direction than I thought it would when I started and I’m eager to read more. You can read deep into the metaphor and symbolism of the story if that is the kind of reader you are but you can also just enjoy an alternate history book with zombies. Or you can fall somewhere in between. That is a mark of a great book.
The brilliance of this novel takes place in its world. It is our world. Our America. Our history. But instead of the American Civil War of brothers vs. brothers ending in the North’s victory over the South, dead soldiers started rising off the battlefields and trying to eat those brothers. It makes perfect sense that in this time in America that (unlike in novels like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) that they would have sent BIPOC to fight the shamblers aka zombies. I love the small nuances like not having horse drawn carriages because (of course) they would have been one of the first victims of zombie attacks as well as mentions of scientists like Edison and Pasteur and how their work shifted because of the zombie infestation.
The characters are fantastic and layered. As you read, subtle layers begin to peel away to reveal their more complex selves. Nobody is exactly who you think they are and there are constant surprises and revelations. Even the zombies can be a bit surprising as they don’t always behave in ways that typical zombies do. Well, except for the awful racist white men. They stay true to themselves but readers wouldn’t believe or accept anything else.
If you like The Walking Dead, then read Dread Nation. That feels like the thing that you are supposed to say but what I really want to say is that I just saw a preview for a new show coming out through Netflix next year called Kingdom that is a medieval Korean zombie series and I think it has a lot in common with Dread Nation. So, put that on your radar now.
The Winner: dread Nation by justina Ireland
This was such a difficult decision because despite neither of them falling into what I would normally consider “my” genre, I really enjoyed them both. Despite one being a Dark Faerie Fantasy and the other being a Zombie-based Alternate History they actually had so much in common. They are both the first book in a series. There are two heroes put in a circumstance beyond their control because of the situation of their birth where they had to face beings that were not like them and fight to survive. Not just fight but be trained in combat for the betterment of the world they live in. Both Jane and Jude have to carefully consider who to trust in a non-native land. Both novels are dark and slightly terrifying. Jeeze, even their names are similar.
How do you decide? This is one of those picking your favorite child situations. How can you compare two things that are so fantastic and simultaneously so different while being so alike? Huh? How do you do it?
For me, my decision ultimately came down to two things:
1) How likely am I to read the rest of the series?
It takes a really special book for me to read beyond the first in a series. I can count the number of series that I have read in their entirety on one hand. And one of them is Harry Potter so that basically doesn’t count. As far as these books are concerned, I am pretty likely to continue reading both series but only because I was told that The Wicked King is better than The Cruel Prince. If I hadn’t know that, I probably wouldn’t have considered reading on. I definitely planned to continue reading Dread Nation. So, there’s that.
2) Was there anything negative about the reading experience for either book?
Really, this is very nitpicky. But Cruel Prince lost me a couple of times as far as characters were concerned. I couldn’t remember who was who when it came to faeries and what their role in the kingdoms were. Eventually, I kind of sorted it out but that was mostly because ***spoiler alert*** a bunch of people die. It’s easier to keep track of people when there are fewer of them there.
So, because of these two factors, and because it is literally my job to pick one the winner is . . . Dread Nation.
Becca Boland is the Assistant Head of Popular Materials/Teen Librarian at the Ela Area Public Library. She loves reading, libraries, and talks about both of these things in her library’s podcast, Three Books. When she has a spare moment, she’s probably knitting something. You can find her as WoolPierogi on all of the things.