The Cruel Prince, The Wicked King, and The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black:
I have read many stories based on mythical creatures, such as fairies, vampires, werewolves, mermaids, and wizards. The female characters in said novels are often overly protected, side-characters, or are so enmeshed in romantic trials that they seem to be unable to focus on real life. Recently, however, authors have tried to rectify this stereotypical portrayal of young women in teen fiction books. This series is a priceless example of one such author succeeding in that effort.
The protagonist of this series, Jude Duarte, and her twin sister Taryn Duarte, were born of human parents in the modern world, and then brutally stolen by their adoptive fae father and forced to grow up in Faerie when they were toddlers. As two of the few humans in Faerie, these girls had to learn to be tough and deal with abuse and discrimination on a daily basis, especially when they attended school with the other children of Faerie. The cruelty they experienced caused them to each come up with a different coping mechanism for handling daily life as a “lowly” human. Jude trains with her fae “father” to eventually pursue her dream of being a royal guard, and Taryn uses her ability to lie, as a human, to get her way, and seems to act as the more traditionally feminine of the two. These girls are not portrayed as helpless victims
(which so often happens with main female characters in fantasy books) to the bullying they suffer, but as individuals with unique talents that they use to improve their situation and assert agency and influence on the world of Faerie.
Jude and Taryn show a different, stronger kind of female fantasy character than many books give readers, and their half-sister Vivi and her girlfriend Heather also represent strong feminist young women. Yet, Jude is the true star of this story. She learns to fight and is fond of battle strategy, and is also interested in political power. These interests have traditionally been banned from women, especially seventeen-year-old girls like Jude, but Holly Black unabashedly gives Jude these talents and desires, and has her go after what she wants with no apology. What is interesting about this is that, while these things make Jude a strong female character, what makes her even more unique and realistic is that her desire for power is not entirely evil, and she does much of what she does to protect those she cares for, like her sisters, her adoptive brother, and humans in general. She believes in her cause and she never backs down, even when faced with romance as an incentive for giving in to the fae and giving up power.
Readers may find Jude’s choices questionable or ruthless at times, while at other times kind and compassionate. This is all part of the author’s way of making her main character as flawed as any other human being. Jude is not perfect, and she is also not an evil. She has nuances, as any person does. This is the best part of the series, hands down. Holly Black’s talent for making her characters believable, realistic, eerily relatable (even if we don’t want to admit it) and subversive of typical gender stereotypes is made clear in each of her books.
Jude’s role is so reversed against traditional stereotypes that her love interest, Prince Cardan, is represented as loving fashion and decadence, having no interest in military matters or fighting, and even at times being soft-hearted compared to Jude. In the end, Jude must rescue him as much as he has rescued her, and that is a progressive view of female characters in fantasy that is currently becoming much more popular among readers than ever before.
If you are a fan of the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, you will understand when I say that Jude Duarte is representative of the female Slytherin character that is missing from the series. The only female Slytherin characters in the series are women like Professor Umbridge, a vindictive and universally hated character, Pansy Parkinson, who is almost as bad as Draco Malfoy himself, Narcissa Malfoy, who has few redeeming qualities, and of course, the crazy and evil Bellatrix Lestrange. The only Slytherin characters shown to be good people are male, like Severus Snape and Professor Slughorn. This teaches girls, even if unintentionally, that Slytherin traits (personality traits that are present in many of us) like ambition and cunning, are not only evil, but especially negative in women. This idea has permeated history, and yet it does not match up with the countless women who achieved influence and made positive change for those around them through using these traits, such as Cleopatra VII, the Roman Empress Drusilla, and Queen Elizabeth I, to name a few.
Jude Duarte and her sisters are a refreshing counterpoint to this narrative, and can teach girls that they can be cunning and have their own ambitions, and that there is nothing wrong with that. Holly Black’s books also can teach girls that they do not always have to be brave, they do not have to be men, they do not have to be the prettiest, and they do not have to be overly forgiving and helpful, in order for them to make a positive impact and achieve their own goals in life.
This series, while not appropriate for audiences under the age of fourteen, is perfectly acceptable for girls to read and learn from. Finally, a female character is available for those girls who always thought themselves a bit too ambitious or never sweet enough to relate to. This series, along with other popular series by Rick Riordan and Sarah J. Maas, prove that girls today are looking for more strong and realistic female characters like Jude in the books that they read, and that authors are stepping up to give them those characters.
Junior Girl Intern
Girl Museum Inc.