This is not a story about Tinker Bell. There is no Neverland where all of the fairies happily live together. There isn't any pixie dust, but there is a lot of blood. Holly Black's faeries aren't tiny wisps of whimsy who endeavor to help humans. This is not a fairytale but a faerie-tale.
Black's tale is tangled with the a beautiful darkness that accompanies magic. The separation between faeries and humans is blurry, with the main character Jude and her family falling in between the cracks. The story follows Jude's journey to fight the monsters that killed her parents, stole her from her home, and gave her a new, magical life or to become the same monster.
Just like all of Black's books, The Cruel Prince is a complex book that goes beyond the basic look at faeries. There is the conflict between family, faeries, and Jude against herself. There are rules of conduct, violence, and rules for lawlessness. There is a complex code of propriety, which was explored and broken with the addition of Jude's humanity into the hierarchy.
I loved the brutality of the faeries, with nothing spared for the faint of heart. Faeries are the walking contradictions of extreme beauty and relentless cruelty and sometimes I couldn't even tell the two apart. The writing was versatile enough to beautifully emphasize the gruesome violence and the ethereal magic of the faeries. The world-building was my favorite part, constructing a complete culture (even more than one with the different Courts) of faeries with their rituals, beliefs, and excruciating details of their lives.
However, the characters were not as good as the world-building. Characters drive the plot, but it just seemed like Jude was driving on the wrong side of the road for most of the story. The pivotal moment was so predictable to me and not to Jude which undermines her whole persona as the strategist and cunning hero. In the end, she redeemed herself by hatching a plan that I didn't (fully) predict, yet I am still not convinced of her all-knowing, confident persona that the book hinges on. I will grant that she is an interesting morally gray character who doesn't cry at the sight of blood, even if she is the reason it was shed, but I couldn't buy the tough girl act.
In addition, I couldn't see the focus on family that Jude emphasized so much. Her twin disappears after the first fourth of the novel, only to reappear briefly for shock value in the plot twist. Taryn was used more as a plot device than as an actual character. Jude's relationships with Oak and Vivienne were more fleshed out and I enjoyed the conflict between Madoc as a weird surrogate father to foster child relationship.
My final hesitation with The Cruel Prince lies with the romance(s), if I can even call it that. The romance is not the central conflict, which separates it from some of the other YA books dealing with faeries. The romantic encounters were full of desire, playfulness, danger, and confusion, which is consistent with Black's branding of faeries. The relationship (and I am being vague on purpose to avoid spoilers) is messy and ambiguous, but I did not fall for it like I believe the book wanted me to. Regardless of my wariness, I will give it a shot in the second book. I have a feeling that a piece of the story that we are missing and Black is just preparing to properly pull at my heartstrings later on in the series.
If you are looking for a faerie story that doesn't sugarcoat anything or rely on romance as the only plot point, then The Cruel Prince might be the book for you. The portrayal of family is not as complete as I wanted and the twists were not particularly surprising, but the world-building and writing are worth acting surprised at the "plot twist".