Release Date: 24 November 2020
I was surprised when I heard that Holly Black was releasing How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories simply because it feels like Queen of Nothing wasn't that long ago!
For those of you unfamiliar with Holly Black, she's dubbed the Queen of Faeries due to her three-book series, Cruel Prince, Wicked King, and Queen of Nothing, which follows a young human girl named Jude Duarte, who is kidnapped and taken to Elfhame (the land of Faeries) after witnessing the murder of her parents. In Elfhame, she's raised by her mother's ex-lover and older sister's biological father, a warlord in Faerie - the same man who murdered her parents and stole her and her sisters away to a world where Jude can't even safely eat the food.
Flashforward, Jude is desperate to prove herself in Elfhame and earn her place as Maddoc's adopted daughter, rather than his human slave (which is where most faeries find more fitting for humans). As a human among beautiful and powerful faeries, danger is everywhere, even at school, where the last son of the King of Elfhame turns his cruelties to her.
Because this review is focused on a book that takes place after the original series, there are spoilers for the Cruel Prince, Wicked King, and Queen of Nothing, so continue only if you've read the first three! If you can't read this review, go back and read Cruel Prince. You won't be disappointed (not at least until you get to Queen of Nothing!).
This follow-up novella was a pleasant surprise. I love that it's lightly illustrated. While the art style that depicted Cardan doesn't quite match how I see him in my own head, I found him to be hauntingly beautiful on the page.
One pet-peeve with the art was that the same generic book and branch stamp-like image appears again and again. I would've rather they filled it with something a little more tuned to the story or simply left those pages blank and used the time and effort for one more bigger illustration.
Going into this, I expected it to be more of a series of short stories than something with a story-line that pulled all the way through, but Black surprised me again by giving Cardan a voice of his own story. Through this companion book, we're able to see pieces of him from his perspective over time. I loved being able to zero in on all those moments we heard about in the main series and flashback. In my head, it felt like moving through the first three books, but being able to pause and zoom in on the rumors and the tales we "heard" about Cardan throughout.
Unsurprisingly, I found Cardan very endearing in this. Black uses this book to soften his edges, to rationalize his brain. He's still the cruel little prince, but he's matured and is able to understand his own emotions better, for the most part. What sticks out from these pages is his sense of being grateful. Disdained and shunned most his life, he's no longer completing for a place in his family (let alone his father's court); he's content. That's the best ending for Cardan there could be, and Holly Black brought him full-circle beautifully.
Even though this book was good, I didn't feel like it gave me more than what the first three books did. Everything we saw in The King of Elfhame was just the zoomed-in version of what we already learned in the other books. We walked through a lot of the same moments, tying them back into a central theme. Basically, How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories is to The Cruel Prince Series as Midnight Sun is to the Twilight Saga. It's the same song and dance from another perspective. Instead of Bella learning that Edward went out of town, we see him in Denali, but it doesn't really add much else to the story.
The newest and brightest spot was being able to see Cardan in Jude's human world. The tenderness of those moments really stuck out to me. I won't say too much, but we get a split second of seeing Cardan among a family, and we get to see just how much he connects with his relationship with Jude. I love that version of Cardan, and I wish we would've got more of it. It just felt like too narrow of a glimpse for me to be satisfied. Many of these scenes were given to us past-tense, after the fact as Cardan reflecting on them. I wish we could've had a few pages of him in the moment, raw and experiencing it for the first time. It just lacked those moments, and I longed for them.
Even though Black isn't trying to start a whole new storyline for Jude and Cardan, I'd love to see how they rule Elfhame together. Maybe just one more short-story about the two of them. I wish this book might've started there then move onto the human realm. I feel greedy toward their story, and a bit unsatisfied with real, heavy moments between them.
Despite wanting more of their daily-life from her, Black characterized Cardan so well in this book that I can already see what their life is together. I know how they handle faerie problems, I know how they rule, I know how they communicate, I know how they love. Even just from the snippet we got of them in this book, I know the two of them together. It really did help fill the disappointment that Queen of Nothing left for me, even if I wished it was done in a different way.
While QoN felt rushed and obvious, How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories is bittersweet, real in its portrayal of love and settling into love, and actually feels final. While I'd love to live in the land of Faerie forever and watch Jude and Cardan continue to grow, I don't need another book to tell me what it will be (even if I want one).
Black's entire series feels understated. It's simple and calming, like walking through nature is simple and calming. You can only see so much on the page, but it's so much more than what meets the eye. Even in QoN with its plot issues, the author makes their world feel effortless and airy. Even when they leave faerie for the human realm, the world-building is phenomenal. Stepping between those two worlds, this final book takes a boy who was hurt and lashing out his whole life and shows him as someone deserving of being king. Even as he travels from his childhood home to Jude's, the two of them are no longer the children they were at the start of the series, and the juxtaposition calls to me.