The Stolen Heir
Holly Black’s marvelous trilogy The Folk of Air is so damn good that when I heard she was continuing to explore the world of Elfhame, a kingdom of magical islands, I was thrilled. And cautious. Black’s novel after the trilogy, Book of Night, was a hot mess. Would a return to Elfhame be a return to the greatness that is the story of Jude and Cardan?
The Stolen Heir (the first of a duology) is worth reading but those who are looking for sublime will not find it in these 345 pages. Its heroine, Suren (Wren), the true Queen of the Court of Teeth, is less lovable than Jude and this book, the story of a quest she goes on with Jude’s younger brother Oak, the heir to the Kingdom of Elfhame and to whom Suren was once betrothed, meanders for too long before reaching a dramatic and rather horrifying conclusion.
Wren is one traumatized blue skinned changeling. Born a faerie, she was raised in the human realm in a loving family until her truly evil parents, Lady Nore and Lord Jarel, kidnapped her. In the almost two years Suren, as she is known in Faerie, lived in the Court of Teeth, she was tortured and profoundly emotionally abused by her parents. At the end of The Queen of Nothing, the final book in the first trilogy, the Kingdom of Teeth is in ruins, Lord Jarel is dead, and Lady Nore has sworn fealty to Suren . Nine years later, Wren is homeless in the human world, wild, isolated and always alone.
As this book begins, she is being hunted by Bogdana, the storm hag, whom Wren is sure is working for Lady Norel, now back and up to no good in the Court of Teeth. Panicking and trying to escape, Wren is running through the woods when she suddenly runs into Oak.
Oak, preternaturally gorgeous and charming, offers Wren a deal. He and his knight, Tiernan, will protect Wren if she goes with them to the Court of Teeth. Oak is searching for the heart of Mellith, an object of great power which, were it to fall into Lady Nore’s hands, would doom the worlds magical and real. Wren is the only person in the kingdom who has any power over Lady Nore whom Wren absolutely loathes and so she agrees and the three set off.
The Stolen Heir is, at its somewhat depressing heart, about the wounds of childhood trauma. Wren’s life has left her fearful and feral. She trusts no one, especially not Oak who, from her perspective, has led a charmed life as loved Elfhame royalty. Oak, who is the heir to the throne until Jude and Cardan start popping out babies, has suffered endless assassination attempts. And while his relationship with his loving sisters is straightforward, that with his adoptive redcap father, Madoc whom Lady Nore is holding captive, is complicated and dangerous. It’s obvious, perhaps overly so, that Oak and Wren care for one another, even love each other, but their interactions are full of lies and betrayal and a very rational mistrust.
The novel is told only from Wren’s perspective–the second will be from Oak’s. As a narrator, Wren is glum. Over and over, she reminds herself, and the reader, that she is damaged, ugly, that Oak only is with her to use her power, and that everything sucks. She’s not wrong–this is a dark and fairly humorless book. Oak is a possible source of joy and laughter and yet, through Wren’s eyes, he comes across as somewhat flimsy. Those who love the first trilogy will compare him to Cardan and find Oak both similar and lacking. Don’t misunderstand me–I like Oak and it’s clear he’s a complex, morally grounded young man (he’s 17, Wren is 19). It’s just that Wren is such a downer for most of the book and her depression colors how accessible Oak is.
Oak, Wren, and Tiernan slog their way through magical fiefdoms all of which are deadly–I found myself wanting some nice fairies just to leaven the tale. By the time our trio arrives at the Court of Teeth–which takes too long–I was ready for something like happiness. This, dear reader, does not happen. The story ends bleakly although I am sure the duology will not. The final scenes are climactic, even exciting. I am curious to see what happens next–Wren’s actions in the last pages were, if not shocking, unsettling both for her and for Oak. Mistrust continues to rule the day even as the longing Wren feels for love simmers inside her.
Black’s world building is dense–and, here, less crisp than in the Folk of Air. The novel is bedecked with references to magical creatures from all cultures which were fun to learn about. I especially enjoyed the large and inadvertently droll trolls.
Should you read it? If you’ve read the first trilogy, absolutely… with tempered expectations. If you’ve not, run out and pick up The Cruel Prince. It, unlike The Stolen Heir, is mesmerizing.