Colleen Mondor Reviews The Wicked King by Holly Black and The Supernormal Sleuthing Service: The Sphinx’s Secret by Gwenda Bond & Christopher Rowe
The Wicked King, Holly Black (Little, Brown 978-0-316-31035-2, $18.99, 324pp, hc) January 2019.
Holly Black’s highly anticipated sequel to her outstanding The Cruel Prince has arrived and somehow, she manages to put even more intrigue and tension into this second volume. The Wicked King picks up a few months after the first book’s stunner of an ending, (and get ready – she packs that same cliffhanger punch with this one), and things are seriously complicated in the Isles of Elfhame. There is a new king (previously a cruel prince), his most trusted adviser was once his worst enemy (our protagonist), and everything is held together with a tissue of secrets and lies that is aching to blow apart. Then Black starts working her magic and the book takes off at a deadly pace, proving yet again that this author doesn’t just dominate the YA fantasy genre; she is a comet streaking across the entire world of fantasy literature.
Jude made her deal at the end of The Cruel Prince (and you must read these books in order to understand what is going on), and now she and Cardan, former enemies, reluctant co-conspirators, occasional romantic partners, are stuck together ruling the kingdom. Cardan holds the throne and Jude holds the power, but neither one of them has any illusions about this situation working out to everyone’s satisfaction. It is difficult enough to be the High King of Faerie when the knives are pointed at your back; to do it under the circumstances that Cardan and Jude have trapped themselves in makes the job well-nigh impossible.
So what does Black throw at our sort-of-heroes? There is a possible invasion from another kingdom. There is a plot to steal the throne from within Faerie. There is the arrival of a powerful man who claims to want nothing but likely wants a whole lot of something. There is an obvious deception within the court that is moving beyond Jude’s ability to handle. There is a traitor in their midst. And another. And, well, maybe another. There is a party that will remind you why the land of Faerie is really a terrible place if you are human and there is a wedding with all kinds of complications and there is one poor human who gets the surprise of her life. (Note to self: don’t keep it to yourself that you are from another world when you are in a serious relationship with a human.) And through it all there is the attraction between Jude and Cardan that they can barely control, which remains impossible because the baggage they carry is so monumental that it is absurd to even imagine them getting beyond it. Happy endings don’t happen in Faerie, explosions do, and Black has got a hella lot of bombs to throw in this novel.
The Wicked King is everything that plot lovers adore and even though they know that Black is determined to surprise them, they are still pretty certain to be shocked by the twists and turns she has up her sleeve. There is so much to take in with this novel – so much that happens from one chapter to the next that can not be ignored and in fact builds brilliantly on all that came before it. Jude and Cardan continue to be the most complex of protagonists, neither of them heroic, but neither a villain either. They are stuck by circumstance (readers learn a lot more about Cardan’s life this time), and angry about being stuck. Black is always relentless with her characters; she never gives them easy exits and The Wicked King is no exception to that rule. So hold on tight, clear your schedule, and immerse yourself in the drama of Elfhame. Then start planning for the next book, which cannot come fast enough.
The Supernormal Sleuthing Service: The Sphinx’s Secret, Gwenda Bond & Christopher Rowe (Greenwillow 978-0-06-245997-8, $16.99, 340pp, hc) May 2018.
The spousal writing team of Gwenda Bond & Christopher Rowe returned last year with the second book in their Manhattan-based Supernormal Sleuthing Service series, The Sphinx’s Secret. This classic adventure series with a fantastical twist continues to beguile and bemuse its younger teen/tween readers and for good reason: it hits multiple literary notes with ease. The mysteries are engaging, the villains nefarious, the kids believably smart (and willing to bend a rigid rule or two when necessary), and the hotel setting is absolutely superb. Bond & Rowe have a witty rhythm going with these books and a group of protagonists who become more fun to watch with each passing chapter.
As The Sphinx’s Secret begins, the events of the first book, The Lost Legacy, are still rippling through the lives of Stephen, Sofia, and Ivan, the three friends living in the New Harmonia Hotel. Most significantly, Stephen is adjusting to the return of his mother and the revelation that he is half fae. Just how much his fairy blood will affect him is still unknown, but all three of the children are wary after he was nearly stolen away by his mother’s erstwhile enemies. They are also chafing at some of the restrictions in the New Harmonia community, rules that will soon cause everyone they love to hurtle headlong toward catastrophe.
One of the best aspects of the Supernormal Sleuthing Service books is how seamlessly the authors weave its paranormal aspects into the real world. Everybody and everything is there within the human world, just magically transformed into a more acceptable appearance. In this way a true Cabinet of Wonders is secure within the confines of the New York Public Library and the sphinxes who guard it appear as the easily recognizable stone lions. These sphinxes are at the center of the new book’s plot, and what happens to them compels Stephen, Sofia, and Ivan to risk everything by traveling back in time to obtain proof against the nefarious acts of a very (very) bad guy.
While Bond & Rowe’s plotting cannot be discounted, and the books are certainly page-turners, there is something deeper at work here that needs to be discussed. The three protagonists are tossed together in the first book largely by age and proximity (a classic “you kids go play together for awhile” scenario), but they are determined to learn about each other and make their fledgling friendship work. Their mutual respect grows rapidly and fuels their adventures as they watch each others’ backs, stay loyal through every circumstance, and encourage each other through the most harrowing of challenges. They also share a healthy skepticism of blind adherence to rules, which plays a big part in their decision-making in The Sphinx’s Secret. “It’s right to step up when a terrible thing happens,” Stephen says to his mother as he argues that the supernormal community must do more to help a fallen friend. “And that,” she replies to him, “is your nature. It would be far more troubling to me if you didn’t want to do more, rules or no rules.” For young readers the message is clear: trust yourself to do the right thing, even when those around you might be too stuck in their ways to attempt it.
The Supernormal Sleuthing Service books are charming fantasies with fairies, vampires, goblins, zombies, mermaids, and dragons, but they are also something more. These are stories that celebrate the power of capable children, not simply because the plot demands it but because the characters they create deserve it. These are clever and joy-filled novels that also include a thrill or two and the combination makes them books that young readers should most definitely check out.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the February 2019 issue of Locus.
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