REVIEW: The Stolen Heir by Holly Black
Dear Holly Black,
Over the summer I caught up with your Cruel Prince trilogy (I know, I know, I live under a boulder) and enjoyed each book more than the last. When I saw that The Stolen Heir, Oak and Suren’s story, was coming out this month, I got excited for it because even in Queen of Nothing, when both of them were kids, I wanted a story about the two of them.
Now in their late teens, Suren and Oak live vastly different lives. Whereas Suren, a changeling child who goes by the name her human parents gave her, Wren, lives a feral life in the woods near her human family, rummaging through trash and stealing food from their house while they sleep, Oak is a prince and the heir to the throne of Elfhame, cossetted and adored, Wren thinks (the spoilery reality is a bit different from that, but he lives in a palace and is loved by his family).
As we saw in the Cruel Prince trilogy, Wren’s fae parents, Lady Nor and Lord Jaren, only ever intended her to be a puppet queen, one they could use to avoid vowing loyalty to Elfhame’s ruler(s). When they wrested her from her human parents and sister, they glamoured them into viewing Wren as a monster, so that her family begged Nor and Jaren to take Wren away from them.
A devastated child Wren was taken into Jaren and Nor’s ice citadel where they abused her terribly, and she’s not sure if the glamour on her parents and sister is still in effect. She calls her parents and sister her un-family, but she misses them horribly.
When Lord Jaren was killed (see: Queen of Nothing), Queen Jude freed Wren and forced Lady Nor to swear a binding oath of featly to her daughter. In theory, Wren can command Lady Nor and the spell will not allow her fae mother to resist Wren’s commands, but in practice Lady Nor has disappeared and the last thing Wren (who was only ten or so at the time) wanted to do was seek her out.
Nor does she herself want to be sought out. But in the space of a day, three different fae find her. First Bogdana, a weather magic wielding storm hag in service to Nor and Jaren; then, after Wren barely escapes her, Prince Oak and his knight/companion, Tiernan.
Oak and Tiernan insist Wren come with them to control Lady Nor, who is once again building forces for an uprising against Cardan and Jude and has taken Oak and Jude’s father captive. Wren is more or less Oak and Tiernan’s prisoner and Tiernan doesn’t trust her. Oak has in his possession a bridle that was once forced on Wren and can control the person wearing it, and Wren fears it could be used on her. But Oak doesn’t act like she’s a prisoner, for all that Tiernan does.
Also with them is a true prisoner, Hyacinth. Hyacinth was once Tiernan’s lover but switched his allegiance from away from the crown and supported Madoc (Oak’s father) attempt to overthrow Cardan and Jude. Hyacinth was punished by being turned into a bird. To be turned back he had to be fed by someone for years, and Nor was happy to do that for him and for other rebels in return for their loyalty to her. Hyacinth hasn’t been completely freed, however. One of his arms is still a wing.
Wren/Suren, Oak, Tiernan and Hyacinth travel in search of a witch who may be able to tell them where something important is hidden, something that Nor wants and that could change the balance of power in Elfhame. On their journey through the human world, a stone fortress, on board ship and through the icy mountains near the Court of Teeth, they encounter a number of dangers. But the greatest danger of all is the one to Wren’s heart. Wren is falling for Oak, but she doesn’t know if he can be trusted.
I had high hopes for this book and it wasn’t bad, but that’s the best I can say about it. It’s okay on its own but pales in comparison to the Cruel Prince books. A big part of the problem for me was Wren herself. Whereas Jude was always doing something to actively change her circumstances, Wren is passive character. “Content” is the wrong word for someone as sullen as she is, but content or not, she goes along with Oak and Tiernan’s mysterious agenda even though she has unanswered questions and niggles about it.
Oak is a more appealing but somewhat underdeveloped. He has charm and courtly manners but he’s also a capable fighter. His appeal worked really well on the page but whenever it was mentioned that he had goat-like legs with furry ankles and hooves, I had to turn that image off in my head. That most of the time I was able to do that and he was kind of hot anyway is a credit to his characterization (also, the hooves were only mentioned a few times).
Overall I liked him more than I liked Wren and I think it’s not just because of his charm and aura of hidden agendas but also because Oak made more things happen in the story than Wren did. I didn’t dislike Wren but her angst dragged on too long for me.
Wren kept contemplating that Oak was underhanded and while that supposition was not completely baseless to me as a reader, I also didn’t understand why she would think so. The prior times she’d encountered him, when they were kids, she believed he was trusting and easy prey. How did he (in her mind) turn from a boy who could be easily manipulated to a young man who could play someone as distrustful as her? The transition from point A to point B was missing.
In addition, Wren was angry that Oak didn’t intervene on her behalf while she was at the court of Elfhame but that’s not how I remember it. His intervention wasn’t all she hoped for but he did care enough to protect her substantially.
While I was waiting for Wren to get over her angst I had time to appreciate how good the worldbuilding is. Holly Black excels at it and here it was almost as strong as in the Cruel Prince books. The fae are likely to disorient or trick, some have a tendency to cruelty and others to placing glamours on people. More than that, the way they and their world (clothes, food, and environments) are described is strikingly distinctive and fresh. The different magical abilities are suited to each creature and the rules that govern their world are consistent.
The pacing of the book was slow for the first half but the last 20% was eventful, with some unexpected surprises. Maybe not 100% unexpected, actually, because my husband guessed the biggest spoiler as we were reading the book together and shared his theory with me, drat it. The twist at the heart of the novel is powerful and potentially gut wrenching for readers who may not foresee it.
There was some clever stuff in the last quarter or so of the book—if only the entire book had been plotted as well. The novel ends with a cliffhanger and I think book two will be stronger. For one thing, this first book is in Wren’s POV but the next will be in Oak’s. And too, the setup for the next book is strong and it will be interesting to see where the characters go from here. The Stolen Heir, however, didn’t live up to its potential. It’s a C+ for me.