Review: The Wicked King by Holly Black

“Power is much easier to acquire than it is to hold on to.”

Welcome to my review of The Wicked King! If you missed my review of The Cruel Prince, you can check it out here. A lot of what I shared there will be built upon in this review. Also, as this is a review for the second book in the trilogy, obviously there may be some spoilers.

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.

When I finished The Cruel Prince, I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy the rest of the trilogy. The intrigue didn’t really start until the later part of the book and I wasn’t really in love with the characters. Jude was always angry and mean. Cardan was a narcissistic, entitled a-hole. These are supposed to be out heroes? I couldn’t see it.

Then The Wicked King comes along and completely changes my mind. It’s been a long time since I actually enjoyed the second book more than the first. Jude and Cardan are still true to themselves but we see them change when forced to work together. They say in chemistry that when you combine two elements, they’re irrevocably changed forever. Nothing is more true for these two.

“Why am I the way I am?” His tone makes it clear he’s proposing something I might suggest he ask, not really wondering about it. “There are no real answers, Jude. Why was I cruel to Folk? Why was I awful to you? Because I could be. Because I liked it. Because, for a moment, when I was at my worst, I felt powerful, and most of the time, I felt powerless, despite being a prince and the son of the High King of Faerie.”

Before I get into anything else, I realize that I left out an important element in my review of The Cruel Prince… Oak. Oak is Taryn and Jude’s step-brother? Adopted brother? I’m not completely sure how to classify it. But Oak is not biologically Madoc and Oriana’s child even though they are raising him with Jude and Taryn. He’s actually the product of a secret tryst between Oriana’s best friend and Dain (one of the High King’s sons). Unfortunately, no one is allowed to produce heirs except the High King so Oak’s mother was murdered. It was only by luck that Oriana was able to save Oak and pass him off as her own.

So technically, Oak is eligible to assume the throne and would be the preferable choice among the heirs. Problem is, he’s still a child and no one knows of his lineage but Jude and Oriana. Another problem… The Blood Crown can only be passed in good faith to another in the Greenbriar bloodline. After the murderous coup at the end of the last book, it was planned for Cardan to crown his brother, Balekin. Balekin, the one that took Cardan in and proceeded to beat him for every slight committed. Definitely who you do NOT want ruling the Folk. This is where Jude stepped in; tricking not only Balekin but his co-conspirator, Madoc; and had Oak crown Cardan as High King of Elfhame and Faerie. Oak was then hidden safely away in the Mortal realm.

That’s where we begin this story. Before Cardan was crowned, Jude was able to extract a promise from Cardan – He’d do whatever she said for “a Year and a Day”. Catch a tiger by the tail, if you ask me. Anyway, she figured that would be enough time to get Oak ready for the throne. However, tricking Cardan into being the High King went against everything Cardan wanted. He knew of the curse and recognized that his own cruelty would make him a horrible king. In light of that, he allowed her to rule from behind the scenes and he only acted as a pretty figurehead.

“His mouth curls into a smile. His eyes shine with wicked intent. “Look at them all, your subjects. A shame not a one knows who their true ruler is.”

Going from being next to no one in the Court to the King’s Senechal was a heady trip for Jude. She relishes the power and tries to balance that with her own goals of eventually handing over the throne. However, this is not her biggest threat. No, it’s Cardan, himself. Now being forced to work together and in close proximity, they learn each other’s quirks and secrets. Most troublesome, they learn to trust each other. With understanding of how the other tics, that all consuming hate slowly becomes something different.

“He looks up at me with his night-colored eyes, beautiful and terrible all at once. “For a moment,” he says, “I wondered if it wasn’t you shooting bolts at me.”

I make a face at him. “And what made you decide it wasn’t?”

He grins up at me. “They missed.”

As Jude struggles with her changing feelings for Cardan, she must also contend with Madoc and Balekin regrouping for another coup. The Queen of the Undersea and her daughter, Nicassia (one of Cardan’s exes), are also vying for power over Elfhame… By forcing Cardan to marry Nicassia. But it’s the figurative knife Jude doesn’t see coming from someone she has trusted her whole life that ultimately hurts the most. Betrayal from a loved one is no easy thing to forgive.

“The Folk doubtlessly learned this lesson long ago. They do not need to deceive humans. Humans will deceive themselves.”

This book has so much going on that I was hooked from the first page. If I didn’t need to work, I probably would’ve read it straight through. Even the lulls in action were jam packed with nuggets that got you thinking. Everyone was a suspect, everyone had a secret, everyone had their own agenda. Watching Jude and Cardan attempt to navigate it all while battling their lifelong negative history was fascinating. I could talk about all of it for long time. The 180 degree feeling I have from the first book is crazy!

Cardan is slowly becoming one of my favorite guys though. After finishing The Cruel Prince, I never would’ve believed I could say that. He has an incredible amount of layers. Holly Black put some work into him and it shows! The best way I can think of to describe it is: He’s a little boy, emotionally. He grew up without real love and compassion. He never learned it. He was always hated and reviled due to the prophecy. When speaking of his father, the High King, Cardan said: “If he thought I was bad, I would be worse. If he thought I was cruel, I would be horrifying.” He wanted nothing but his father’s attention and only got it when he was being cruel. It’s not an excuse in any way for his behavior in the first book but it helps you understand him. He quite literally has no idea how to show affection. He’s that 5 year old boy on a playground that pulls the girl’s hair because he likes her. He knows it’s wrong but he has no idea how to be any other way.

“I wasn’t kind, Jude. Not to many people. Not to you. I wasn’t sure if I wanted you or if I wanted you gone from my sight so that I would stop feeling as I did, which made me even more unkind. But when you were gone—truly gone beneath the waves—I hated myself as I never have before.”

I don’t want to give too much away, although feel like maybe I already did. But the book ends with Jude’s banishment to the Mortal world. I have my own thoughts on why Cardan chose to do it and I’d love to discuss them with you! So please, read this trilogy and tell me what you think. I’m dying to know. 🙂

I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite quotes because the one-liners and writing was amazing. ❤

Our eyes meet, and something dangerous sparks.

He hates you, I remind myself.

“Kiss me again,” he says, drunk and foolish. “Kiss me until I am sick of it.”

I feel those words, feel them like a kick to the stomach. He sees my expression and laughs, a sound full of mockery. I can’t tell which of us he’s laughing at.

He hates you. Even if he wants you, he hates you.

Maybe he hates you the more for it.

After a moment, his eyes flutter closed. His voice falls to a whisper, as though he’s talking to himself. “If you’re the sickness, I suppose you can’t also be the cure.”

He drifts off to sleep, but I am wide awake.

*

“The three of you have one solution to every problem. Murder. No key fits every lock.” Cardan gives us all a stern look, holding up a long-fingered hand with my stolen ruby ring still on one finger. “Someone tries to betray the High King, murder. Someone gives you a harsh look, murder. Someone disrespects you, murder. Someone ruins your laundry, murder.

*

“His eyes are open, watching my flushed face, my ragged breathing. I try to stop myself from making embarrassing noises. It’s more intimate than the way he’s touching me, to be looked at like that. I hate that he knows what he’s doing and I don’t. I hate being vulnerable. I hate that I throw my head back, baring my throat. I hate the way I cling to him, the nails of one hand digging into his back, my thoughts splintering, and the single last thing in my head: that I like him better than I’ve ever liked anyone and that of all the things he’s ever done to me, making me like him so much is by far the worst.”

I gave this 4 Stars on Goodreads. Content warnings for sex, murder, and torture. I’m sure there are others but those are the major ones.

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