Book Title: The Wicked King (The Folk of the Air #02) Author: Holly Black Number of pages: 336
After the jaw-dropping revelation that Oak is the heir to Faerie, Jude must keep her younger brother safe. To do so, she has bound the wicked king, Cardan, to her, and made herself the power behind the throne. Navigating the constantly shifting political alliances of Faerie would be difficult enough if Cardan were easy to control. But he does everything in his power to humiliate and undermine her even as his fascination with her remains undiminished.
When it becomes all too clear that someone close to Jude means to betray her, threatening her own life and the lives of everyone she loves, Jude must uncover the traitor and fight her own complicated feelings for Cardan to maintain control as a mortal in a Faerie world.
Should this book be picked up? the tl;dr review:
– The stakes in court drama and political intrigue are higher and further developed; shifting powers and old/new players make their move
– Setting showcases new environments but often lacks nuance to support the change in scenery, the magic involved, and vivid imagery
– Romance feels more slow burn now (but the previous love square is now a love triangle.)
– Some continuity issues in the writing from info. established in the first book that may just have not been explored rather than being a discrepancy (e.g. Jude’s lying, use of mithridatism, use of magic)
This review has been a long time coming, and I do apologize because a lot of it is going to be based on my notes I wrote months ago. Spoiler level is low-moderate.
Disclaimer: I received an ARC of The Wicked King from Hachette at Book Expo.
The Wicked King [unfortunately] does not begin immediately following Jude taking the reigns of her newfound power (which I would have greatly appreciated seeing Carden shirking responsibility in lieu of his “year and one day” promise). Instead, it starts a few months after-the-fact, so we’re mainly told of Jude’s grievances navigating her role in politics and court drama as a voice for Cardan. In any event, the sequel delves into the political unrest of the kingdom now that Cardan has become king.
For the most part, Wicked King is a tighter story than Cruel Prince in the sense that we are able to do away with the introductions and focus on the development of character and competing agendas. A lot of the previous focus was on the establishment of Jude’s position growing up in this new environment with the individual who killed her parents and the emerging powers that seek to tip the balance.
That being said, a story still has to align itself with its roots of plotting, conflict, and world building. And this is where the delivery of Wicked King begins to lose its traction for me. The stakes are raised that much higher in this sequel but the narrative elements in support seemed to not develop at the same pace as the Jude versus Everyone conflict continued to escalate.
I’ll explain per section below.
Here’s the thing: the reason why I personally find nuggets of exposition in SF-F stories a worthy element to include is that things need to be explained, even in the broadest of sense, to generate clarity and fill in missing holes. I am not saying I need paragraphs of precise breakdown but in the case of Wicked King, something as small as Merfolk having tails/fins in one scene and then moments later displaying feet and toes is jarring at worst, questionable at best. Are they Animorphs? Are they using magic? Are they just wearing costumes? I don’t know, and since this sequel spends a great chunk of time expanding the scope of the world (which is great), finessing these details goes a long way for a more visually wholesome experience.
Further, there’s this one scene where Cardan goes full Avatar Aang and it was the cause of expletives from yours truly. Magic via glamour and geas? Sure, that type of magic was mentioned. Earth and water bending with a wizard hat and robes? Possible, yes, on the small scale because earth-related magic was shown previously, but in this case, it reads like the biggest Deus ex Machina trope thrown in. You’re telling me that Cardan, the more-apathetic-than-not King who drinks and has sexual awakenings all day, out of nowhere heralds badass elementalist abilities and basically displaces the entire fishing industry/ocean? C’mon now.
Also a throwaway comment but because these faeries are woodland-creature-esqe, I’m calling #TailWatch2k19 on Cardan because I was underwhelmed by the mention of his tail in comparison to the need to describe Nicasia’s tail and Gnarbone’s tail, and everyone’s tail, sans Cardan save for like two-three times. It isn’t that normalized yet to be forgotten.
I was also about to complain about the abundance of balls and celebrations (4 in total, iirc), but I’ll chalk it up to the faes loving to party and shit rather than it being bland plotting. This is the one Get Out of Jail Free card.
There’s also a mention of an anime during the course of this story with a fella who’s an ice skater and that is just a lovely sight.
Speaking to the political and civil unrest in the Kingdom of Elfhame, the stakes are so much higher now that Cardan is the sitting King. This is where this story soars. It’s interesting to witness Jude struggle to keep hold of this power that isn’t really hers; to have to dabble in a bit of everything and to need to converse with as many individuals as possible. The conversations make for a well-paced page-turner chock full of quips from Cardan and her chin-up delivery of ploys to allay the courts image of a human acting on the ‘King’s behalf’.
Let’s talk about continuity and the narrative being devoid of harnessing its subplots as they come to relate to the big picture items. So mithridatism — we know it as the process where Jude thinks everyone’s going to murder her so she distills poison into herself to build tolerance (paraphrased). It was a critical plot point in Cruel Prince. In Wicked King, Jude [allegedly] continues taking doses of these poisons [every day]. This is regularly told to us. Fine. But then Jude even says her body as “acclimated” to it, craves said poisons, and her body would be sicker without it. So what happens? Jude gets captured for an extended period and would not technically have vials of liquid death. So…
Two things come to mind: 1) she would be off inoculating herself with poisons, and 2) her body craves poisons and if she’s off her addiction, I would imagine she could relapse. While she does feel off-kilter in some bits, she didn’t seem to experience, in a true sense, a feeling of a lack of capacity or agitation as to the removal of drug. Further, with limited-to-no access to these poisons, should her tolerance to poisons not grow weaker?And then once we bring Poison Plotpoint #2 into this sequel, I must question the efficacy in how she was able to fend it off with such ease.
Another aspect to the storytelling I have concerns about is how Jude, for as nifty as she is in staying on top of things, doesn’t seem to act on her one greatest skill. And I guess I’m just not sure why not? Throughout Wicked King, Jude reminds herself more than a half-dozen times that “someone you trust has already betrayed you“. It is well established that fae cannot lie but humans can (e.g. Jude). Jude knows this. Faes know this. So the ball is always in her court to force a character-driven story; to have agency and explore the cruel intentions of others to defend her own position in court. And as much as external threats exist and Jude continues to mitigate those threats, the writing makes it feel as though she’s being reined in.
Don’t get me wrong. The conflict is still very palpable but it could be so much stronger and the stakes, while higher, could be even more so to elevate the story to more perilous heights if she took those steps than being reactive to all the shit that she ends up having to go through.
Speaking to the characters and relationships, the Wicked King spins more webs connecting the relationships and explores Jude’s underground mercenaries in Ghost, Roach, and Bomb, along with how her network of spies influences her surface level decisions with the court and Cardan.
I appreciated that in light of the brewing conflict with the Undersea, the story furthers the development of Nicasia and Queen Orlagh, both of whom had superficial development in the first book (e.g. mean girl + mean girls mom with a fin), so that’s swell.
But let’s talk about Cardan. Just kidding, there’s nothing to really talk about since he’s the same Cardan you know and love from the first book until the fires of conflict force his hand to act — to be the fucking Avatar. (I sigh). Jude, on the other hand, continues to haul ass in keeping everyone important to her alive and keeping the power within her grasp. Her lying, scheming, and combat prowess is all there — really, she feels like a more “grown up” version of her Cruel Prince self (even if only months separate the two).
In terms of the romance, Wicked King showcases what I think the Cruel Prince missed the mark on. Her development with Cardan ought to have played out as a slow burn throughout the series, and in this sequel, we get shades of chemistry and tension that feels so much more organic than their “sad-story-capture-cardan-make-out” plotting.
I know most of this review reads highly negative but I actually did enjoy Wicked King better than in the first book. The rating clearly doesn’t reflect this because of all of the ragging I’ve done. Anyways, most of this book centers around Jude and Cardan, and most I feel are here for them anyways, so this installment won’t disappoint.
I’m also very much an outlier on this series so far so maybe don’t listen to me at all.