Monday 9 January 2023

CBR15 Book 2: "The Stolen Heir" by Holly Black

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Wren thought she was a normal human girl until the night when scary monsters out of a nightmare came and claimed she was in fact their daughter and had to come back to Faerie with them. Lord Jarel and Lady Nore of the Court of Teeth rip away her human glamour and make sure that Wren sees her human parents reject her faerie self (bluish skin, blue hair, mouth full of razor-sharp teeth) with horror and disgust. The cruel faeries, accompanied by the fearsome Stormhag threaten the lives of Wren's human family, and though only nine years old, Wren is forced to go with them to keep her loved ones safe. 

In the Court of Teeth, she is Queen Suren, but queen in name only. She is kept captive and tortured both physically and emotionally until she's barely a shell of her former self and an angry, vicious feral child. Her faery parents keep her literally chained and controlled with a magic bridle and their plan is to marry Suren to Prince Oak, heir to the Greenbriar Throne, and then have him (and probably Wren/Suren) murdered, so they can be High King and Queen. Their plan fails spectacularly, High Queen Jude publicly chops off the head of the giant serpent that used to be her husband and saves not only High King Cardan but increases his power and their joint hold on Elfhame. During the brief time of negotiations and attempted betrayals, Wren/Suren gets to know Prince Oak a bit better. He doesn't seem scared of her and treats her with kindness, but after the Battle of the Serpent, as it comes to be known, Suren is still forced back to the now disbanded Court of Teeth, with Jude having ordered that henceforth Lady Nore and Lord Jarel need to obey all of Suren's commands. Terrified and despondent that she couldn't find safety in the High Court, Wren basically nopes out and runs away to the human world, living homeless in the woods and trying to engage with Faerie as little as possible.

At nineteen, Wren survives by foraging for food in the woods, eating leftovers she finds in rubbish bins, or stealing food from the house of her un-family (what she has learned to call her human family), who she's unable to let go of. She can never forget the horrified reaction of her parents (even though she now knows they were spelled to react so badly) and she fears that they or her former sister would react just as badly if they saw her again. Nevertheless, she keeps creeping around their house, breaking in when they're asleep. Wren has discovered she has the power to dissolve spells and curses if she works hard enough, so she tends to try to save foolish humans from faerie curses when she's able.

Then one night, the Stormhag is coming for her, and to her surprise, the one who rescues her is none other than Prince Oak, all grown up and very formidable. He claims to need her help, as Lady Nore has reclaimed power in the North, now using dark magic to animate hideous creations from sticks, snow, and the body parts of the dead. She's clearly building an army and will be looking to Elfhame for revenge and conquest. As the deeply reluctant heir to the throne, Oak has spent his adolescence making himself into the perfect target for all the assassins coming for the royal family. He's taken it upon himself to stop Lady Nore and rescue his captured father, former Grand General Madoc. He needs Wren, as she is the only one with the power to control her mother. 

While the thought of going back to the Court of Teeth and seeing Lady Nore again fills Wren with dread, she also can't allow the psychotic creature who claims to be her mother to succeed in her sinister, necromantic plans. Nor can she forget that she and Oak seemed to be friends for a very short while as children and that he's now grown into a very handsome, charming, and manipulative young man, who's clearly not going to hesitate to get her to agree, one way or the other. Bogdana, the Storm hag, catches up with them before they've gotten very far on their quest, and shocks Wren/Suren with the truth of her "birth". Faeries can't lie, and Wren, who's never exactly been happy in her own skin, comes to doubt herself further. 

She reluctantly accompanies Oak and his two companions. Tiernan is Oak's bodyguard (not that he gets to do much guarding, the way Oak throws himself headfirst into danger) and Hyacinthe, their prisoner, is a former soldier of Madoc's, now under a curse and able to give them information about the Ice Needle Citadel, as he served Lady Nore there for many years. Tiernan clearly doesn't trust Wren one bit, and Wren is only too aware that Oak has several hidden agendas and if his pleasant looks and manners are a deception, she could end up a captive in the Court of Teeth once more. Faeries can't directly lie, but as a result, they become very skilled at twisting the truth, and Oak, for all that he is only seventeen, has clearly been hardened by years of near-successful assassination attempts and interacting with two-faced courtiers. Desperate for love and belonging, Wren is all too aware that if she's not careful, she'll lose her heart to his honey-tongued words, and considering all the pain and loss she has suffered so far in her short life, she doesn't think she'll survive the pain of having her heart broken by the prince.

I've been eagerly anticipating the release of this book for months and months, since it first came to my attention that Holly Black was writing more from her dark and twisted Elfhame universe. Toxic and damaged as they are, Jude and Cardan shouldn't work as a couple, yet ended up doing after all and after such a feat, Black (whose writing I was already pretty enamored with) owns my eternal loyalty. Turns out, that shocking and brutal as the opening to The Cruel Prince is for Jude and her sisters, Wren/Suren has it SO much worse. Seriously, Jude and Cardan played mind games and tried to kill one another before they kind of reluctantly fell madly in love with each other, and both got some serious baggage growing up in Faerie. Neither of them had to face a fraction of the f*cked up sh*t Suren has to go through before she's even 12 and when you add to her torment some of the stuff she eventually suffers in this book - let's just say the girl has my metaphorical sword and I wan to eviscerate anyone who harms a blue hair on her head henceforth. 

In interviews, Black has said that this is the first part of a duology, and while Wren/Suren is our point of view character in this book, the next book is Oak's, and we're going to see a lot of the same events that we see in this one through his eyes instead. While all of the books in the Folk of the Air trilogy were sort of exhausting because Jude and Cardan are really extreme personalities and not necessarily pleasant people to spend time with, in this I loved Wren from the start, but was also very aware that there were clearly a whole lot of things under the surface, and people waiting to double-cross or manipulate and all sorts of twists and turns, and even when a lot of things became clear, it's obvious that there is so much more going on that we won't know about until the second book. Based on how this book ends, I cannot imagine that Oak's book won't also continue the story, because if Wren and Oak's relationship ends where this book left it, I may have to burn some things down. 

As of now, I've rated this book four stars, but which rating it's ultimately going to end up with very much depends on whether Black can deliver with the second part of the story (which based on her previous novels, I'm pretty sure she can). There is no release date for Oak's book on Holly Black's website and I don't even know if she's started writing it yet. So I guess I'll just have to pine listlessly until the next book comes out, hopefully early next year. 

Judging a book by its cover: Is it a cage? Is it Wren's hidden willow den in the woods? I love that the cover image easily evokes both images. I'm also guessing that since this cover is mostly white (some of the limited special editions are all black), Oak's book is going to be mostly black. Although based on the way he's described in this book, maybe the theme will be heavy on the gold instead. It'll be interesting to see in a year if my prediction holds true.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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