The Fae Are Not a Phase: A Bitter Land, A Better Land

The Fae Are Not a Phase Part III


Faerie is a fascinating trend taking BookTok and other social media platforms by storm in recent years. For my thesis paper at The New School, I decided to write a critical analysis of Faerie as a tool for writers to provide escapism and explore humanity–and I’m excited to share it with you, part by part, here on my blog!

Part III: A Bitter Land, A Better Land

Holly Black’s Cruel, Courtly Fey

Holly Black’s sophomore Folk of the Air series is spearheaded by The Cruel Prince, a young adult novel which follows mortal girl Jude as she fights to survive in Faerie after she and her sisters are whisked away to live with the Fey who murdered their parents as children. Determined to show her strength and earn her place in Fey society, Jude finds herself embroiled in political intrigue and serious conflict with Fey Prince Cardan and his brothers in a battle to crown the next High King. 

The Cruel Prince incorporates a variety of traditional Faerie concepts such as the Fey’s alluring yet cruel nature and strict roles, rules, and expectations within the courtly system. At the same time, Holly Black strategically positions a human, Jude, in her version of Faerie to guide readers through an exploration of humanity itself as Jude descends into a morally gray space which allows her to survive and even thrive among the Fey.

The Cruel Prince and the Human Queen

Holly Black often utilizes the setting of Faerie courts and their extravagant parties to illustrate the gap between Jude’s agency and that of the Fey. Underneath the alluring glitter and drama that coats readers’ top-level perception of the book, providing escapism to a fantastical realm, Black creates space to explore the human psyche within the scenes that she sets up within the High Court parties. 

Following the prologue, we are quickly transported into our very first court scene from chapter one. There, we see the court at a high level and witness the Fey’s cruelty when Prince Cardan, the book’s antagonist and love interest, tortures a lower member of the court for rejecting their society’s strict protocols. “Cardan has stopped beside a boy with long copper hair and a pair of small moth wings–a boy who isn’t bowing,” Jude observes. “The boy laughs and Cardan lunges. Between one eyeblink and the next, the prince’s balled fist strikes the boy hard across the jaw, sending him sprawling. As the boy falls, Cardan grabs one of his wings. It tears like paper” (Black 22). Later, Jude reflects on the incident, understanding that “this is how they are. Someone gets in Cardan’s way, and they’re instantly and brutally punished” (Black 23). By showcasing this moment of brutality within the confines of a glittering, otherwise heavenly court party, Holly Black emphasizes the restrictions of Jude’s society.

Jude’s desire to gain the agency she–and lower members of the court like the moth boy–lacks is initially presented to us on page twelve: “I’d been imagining myself growing at the crowd from our usual bolt-hole and worrying whether I’d do well enough to impress one of the royal family into granting me knighthood,” but we also receive several reminders throughout the text, such as when she makes it clear that her ideal path to success comes through knighthood: “With Madoc’s endorsement, one of the princes or princesses might choose to grant me knighthood and take me into their personal guard. It would be a kind of power, a kind of protection” (Black 27). 

The reader might not notice, but Jude’s reflection of her options tells us so much more about her situation–and by extension, her humanity–in subtext. From the first section of the sentence—”With Madoc’s endorsement, one of the princes or princesses might choose”—we see that Jude’s fate is ultimately in the hands of everyone but her, emphasizing her powerlessness and status as an outsider. From the middle part of the first sentence that mentions “knighthood” and “personal guard,” we get a sense of the limited options that are presented to Jude in this world, and immediately understand the basics of what these roles entail. In the final sentence—”It would be a kind of power, a kind of protection”—we get the most insight. First, we can conclude that these roles come with a measure of respect and power. Secondly, we see that belonging is only Jude’s surface motivation—she also craves agency, which is one of the privileges we are shown that she lacks. The roles available to Jude in Faerie society are limited, and these limits are what stifles her agency. 

Although Jude’s example is more extreme than the situations young people might face in the real world, at its core, it contains the same conflicts that many readers will face: a lack of agency and feeling like an outsider. But it is shown that it is in Jude’s very nature–and by extension, human nature–to fight to extend beyond the boundaries presented to her. When she is faced with a difficult choice to save her brother and try to rule over the Fey who have tamped down her spirit for so long, Jude is prepared to make the difficult choice in order to achieve her goals–a choice that could leave her vulnerable and unhappy in the process: “I have to…manipulate and murder my way into keeping the throne ready…. Seven years of drinking poison, of never sleeping, of living on high alert. Seven more years, and then maybe Faerie will be a safer, better land. And I will have earned my place in it” (Black 322). Instead of taking the easy path and allowing the corrupt rule of Faerie to continue, Jude takes action to make positive change, even at a serious personal cost–something that many young adults might have to grapple with at some point in their lives. Watching Jude live with courage and pursue action on her values could inspire readers to do the same in their own lives, or at least be better positioned to analyze their choices when faced with a similar situation in the real world. 

Through Jude’s fight for agency in Faerie, Holly Black also shows young readers that, sometimes, people descend into a plane that can be considered morally gray in order to achieve their aspirations. The author doesn’t comment on whether Jude’s choices are morally good or bad, she leaves it up to the reader to dissect the nuances of Jude’s situation and take the lessons they may learn into their own lives outside of the book. 

Thanks to the way Holly Black intertwines riveting plot points and intricate worldbuilding amidst political intrigue, The Cruel Prince is an effective example of how the Faerie genre can act as a grounds for exploration of morality and humanity in a safe space, without putting young people into problematic situations in real life or pushing them beyond the limits of what they are ready to explore. 

Imps, and Hobs, and Goblins, Oh My!

Alternatively, if readers choose not to dig into Jude’s psyche, Holly Black can transport them to a whole new world where they can sword fight, peer into magical ponds, and meet creatures of all shapes and sizes. In particular, the court scenes throughout the book allow young people to escape to a world that is different from theirs in many ways. For readers that aren’t ready to examine the deeper context of Holly Black’s books, they can find equal excitement in moments such as when Jude takes on her adoptive father, Madoc, in a swordfight and comes away victorious after tricking him into drinking poison: “I look deep into his eyes as a sheathe my sword. ‘Father, I am what you made me. I’ve become your daughter after all.’ Madoc lifts his blade again, as though he’s going to rush at me one final time. But then it falls from his hand, and he falls, too, sprawling on the stone floor” (Black 353). 

In many ways, Holly Black also utilizes a strategic lack of worldbuilding in certain scenes to immerse her young readers in a world that they can make their own, bringing their unique creativity into play to imagine their perfect escape. One example of this is Black’s omission of many of the creatures in Faerie.  Jude describes a few of the non-Faerie beings, such as Tatterfell, her childhood carer, in some physical detail: ”The imp’s fingers are long, her nails sharp. I wince. Her black eyes meet mine in the claw-footed mirror on my dressing table,” (Black 9). In nearly the same breath, other creatures are only briefly mentioned, left more to readers’ imaginations as background for the Court Jude lives in. She describes “Imps and hobs, goblins and grigs. Gossamer wings and green nails, horns and fangs,” but avoids attributing specific characteristics to the servant creatures she is surrounded with (Black 11). Without many strict descriptions holding their imagination captive, Holly Black’s young readers are given agency over their own escapism to envision some aspects of Faerie and its inhabitants as they’d like to.

Despite its inherent cruelty, the world of The Cruel Prince is novel and unique. Readers can enjoy the magical moments and cheer for Jude’s quest to bring excitement and adventure into their own lives.

Stay tuned for Part IV: A Court of Beauty–and Beasts, which examines Sarah J Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses…


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