June 1, 2020

Review: The Queen of Nothing

The Queen of Nothing The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the final book in the Folk of the Air trilogy, and looking back on all three books, I think the author pulled off something very difficult here: making us sympathize with two extremely unsympathetic characters.

Both protagonists in this series, Jude Duarte and Prince (later High King) Cardan, are in a very real sense victims of Faerie. These are not nice fae, and this is not a cute tinkly Disney-fied world: the inhabitants are cruel, ruthless, and borderline (or full-on) sociopathic. Jude was kidnapped along with her two sisters (the oldest, Vivienne, is half-fae, the daughter of Madoc, their mother's first husband) at age seven, following Madoc's murder of their mother and her human second husband. This crime hangs over Jude all the way through the series, but it's only at the very end that she gets the chance to--and more importantly, makes up her mind to--do something about it. She has very ambivalent feelings towards Madoc through all three books: sometimes she hates him and sometimes she loves him. Because yes, he murdered her parents, but he also taught her the ruthless, bloody, manipulative, conniving ways she would need to survive in Faerie.

And survive she does, and even thrive, scheming and fighting her way through all three books to become the High Queen of Elfhame. Make no mistake, she has been heavily damaged and twisted by all this. Jude knows it, and so does the reader. But despite everything that has happened in Faerie, Jude loves it: she loves magic and she loves the land (and she also loves the power that allows her to have both). She does not go back to the human world, even though she can. In fact, in this third book, after being exiled from Faerie at the end of the second volume, The Wicked King, Jude takes advantage of her twin sister Taryn's plea to impersonate her and return to Elfhame, to save Taryn from the inquest regarding her husband's murder. (Taryn actually killed her husband Locke, and wants Jude to appear in her guise at the inquest because Jude is armored against glamour and can lie on the witness stand, as it were, whereas Taryn cannot.) Jude agrees to do this and sneaks across the magical border pretending to be her sister; but everyone, including the reader, knows that Jude would have taken every pretext, run any risk, to return to the land that for all its grotesqueness has become her home.

Jude's nemesis and now her husband, High King Cardan, is similarly warped. Cardan is a victim of emotional and physical abuse, as is spelled out in the prologue to this book, telling how Cardan was manipulated by one of his brothers, Dain. (Dain kills a human and pins the blame on his brother.)

After, though he protested, no one would hear Prince Cardan's side. Dain saw to that. He told the story of the youngest prince's recklessness, his arrogance, his arrow. The High King would not even allow Cardan an audience.

Despite Val Moren's pleas for execution, Cardan was punished for the mortal's death in the way that princes are punished. The High King had Lady Asha
[Cardan's mother] locked away in the Tower of Forgetting in Cardan's stead--something Eldred was relieved to have a reason to do, since he found her both tiresome and troublesome. Care of Prince Cardan was given over to Balekin, the eldest of the siblings, the cruelest, and the only one willing to take him.

And so was Prince Cardan's reputation made. He had little to do but further it.

Cardan's cruelty toward Jude and Taryn was made clear in the first two books, culminating in Jude's successful scheme to place him on the throne of Elfhame as a puppet, with herself the actual ruler (controlling Cardan for a year and a day) in the shadows. The theme of the second book was "holding on to power is much harder than gaining it." The plot of that book was bloody backstabbing court intrigue, but it also began something quite interesting: the gradual reveal of what Cardan had suffered and what made him the way he was, just as the author had already shown what made Jude the way she was. It was also the beginning of a most improbable love story, as it was shown that the best (and indeed the only) match for these two twisted, ruthless, unlikable characters is...each other.

This final book continues both the bloody backstabbing court intrigue (escalating to all-out war) and the love story, and triumphs at both. This is a very delicate dance indeed, as the author succeeds in making the reader sympathize with Cardan and Jude, without disguising the fact that these are still two generally bad people. Bad in the human sense, absolutely; but this sort of "bad" is what is required to survive in Elfhame, and these two are so good at survival that you can't help but root for them. Jude succeeds in saving Cardan from all the fae who want to take him down, and at the end she is crowned and officially recognized the High Queen of Faerie--and co-ruler of the realm--at his side. She even extracts a measure of revenge on Madoc, sentencing him to live in the human world for the rest of his days (and since the fae are functionally immortal, that could be a very long time) and never touch a weapon again. Which may not sound like much of a punishment, but for the bloodthirsty, chaos-loving Madoc, it pretty much amounts to a fate worse than death.

Folks, it takes a damn fine writer to pull something like this off. The only reason I rated this four stars instead of five is that readers may, understandably, be put off by the bleakness of the world and the protagonists' varying degrees of awfulness. But if you can handle characters that are as nasty, and as complex, as The Sopranos, you will have a helluva ride in the Folk of the Air trilogy.

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