Saturday, May 23, 2020

The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

Jude used to live a normal life with her family until her parents are killed in front of her. She and her siblings are spirited away to Elfhame, the world of beautiful and cruel faeries. Jude and her twin sister Taryn are treated by society as if they are fae, which enrages the petty youngest son of the king, Cardan. He and his cronies torment Jude because she won't back down or admit defeat. When her father makes it impossible for her to ever truly be accepted by fae society, the king's most likely heir approaches her to be his spy, entrenching her further in Court of Fae drama and the underhanded fight for the throne.

I waited years to start this series and thought the hype wouldn't live up to the book. I was totally wrong. The Cruel Prince is so different than I expected. The world of Elfhame is detailed and dark. The fae view humans as temporary lovers at best and playthings or beasts of burden at worst. Jude and Taryn would never be seen as equal in this society's eyes no matter how hard Jude tries to show her abilities. The fae can't lie, but don't hesitate to skirt around the truth or lie by omission. Each creature type is varied in anatomy, behavior, and diet. Jude's stepfather is a redcap who needs to bathe his cap in blood every so often, leading to a hot temper and a love for war. Humans are fooled quite easily into slavery or being playthings until the inhuman creatures get bored or hungry. Every interaction with them puts humans in danger, making living with them inspire constant terror at doing the wrong thing. It's even worse that Cardan has decided to torment Jude and no one will do anything to help her unless it goes too far.

The first and second halves of the book are starkly different. The first half establishes Jude and her situation, not quite fitting into either Elfhame or the human world. With the way she is cruelly treated by almost everyone around her and how she will never truly fit into fae society as a mortal, you would think she would just run back to our world. Wrong. Jude loves Elfhame for everything it is. It's her home and she can never be truly satisfied living away from it knowing it's still there. Her narrative is at times very frustrating to read because I can see how her decisions will turn out so terribly, but she does what she thinks is right. Jude wants to prove that she is equal to if not better than the fae. Taryn, her twin, is perfectly happy taking whatever the fae will give her, tries to fit in wherever she can, and taking it with a smile. She will turn her back on literally anything to just keep them from tormenting her. While she is also frustrating to read, the constant torment would be hard to live with and I don't blame her for doing what she has to for survival. I thought this book would stay as a conflict between Jude and various fae, but the rest is very different.

The second half of the book is much more about the inner workings of royalty and who is going to be crowned prince. Jude has plans, but multiple other parties have their own who are more powerful, well connected, and older than her not to mention essentially immortal. I didn't expect the book to delve so deep into the politics side. This twist upends the status quo of the first half and redeems Cardan somewhat which I thought was impossible. The end is an insane series of twists and turns that I never saw coming. The Cruel Prince proves to be deeper and darker than I expected. While there is a romance (as is annoyingly required in YA), it doesn't take away from the story and adds another complication to an already touchy situation. I can't wait to read the next in the series plus the Cardan novella was just announced.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Nightingale (2019)

* major spoilers *

In 1825, Clare Carroll lives in an English penal colony located in Australia working as a servant for a British military unit. Due to her beautiful singing voice, she is called upon to entertain and serve upon rowdy soldiers. While it looks to others that she gets preferential treatment, Lieutenant Hawkins treats her cruelly behind closed doors and dangles a promised letter of freedom for her and her family to keep her subservient. When his authority is threatened, Hawkins does the unthinkable, leaving an injured and enraged Clare to seek revenge.

The Nightingale is a brutal film that has several scenes of sexual assault, murders of children, and other acts of violence. Although it may not be for all audiences, the portrayals of rape are never meant to titillate. Each one is filmed to show the point of view of the woman and not to objectify her. Many claim this film isn't horror because it's a historical drama, but I argue that the horrific acts done by privileged men with bruised egos definitely classify it as horror. This also makes it incredibly relevant to modern times.

Clare Carroll does what she can to survive throughout the film and stays within the realm of reality. She never becomes a killing machine or supernaturally capable. As a servant for most of her life, weaponry and self defense aren't high on her skills list. However, her sheer determination for revenge takes her extremely far beyond what is expected of her because her life is essentially over when her husband and child are murdered in front of her. Lieutenant Hawkins's word will always be taken as fact above her own no matter the evidence as she saw when she tried to report the murders. Even before the murders, Hawkins raped her whenever he wanted because he knew no one would believe her because of her status as a convict and his own privilege as an officer. The authorities are on the lookout to send her to an even worse penal colony for the rest of her life because she said no to a man in power. Clare is far from perfect and makes many mistakes along the way, including showing the racism towards the Aboriginal people of the time.

Billy is an Aboriginal man Clare hires to guide her through the Tasmanian wilderness. Through him, the audience sees how the English have treated his people, stealing their lands, murdering them indiscriminately to the point of genocide, and destroying their culture. To Clare, this man is lower than an animal and she fears for her safety in his presence until they reluctantly get to know each other. When they share about each other's experiences, they see how similar they have been treated by the English. Billy's true name is Mangana and all the men in his tribe were murdered during colonization. He is essentially homeless, pushed to the edges of society, and works when the English deign to hire him as a guide. At the end of their journey, he would have no recourse if they refused to pay him or tried to murder him. The English have taken fundamental things from both of them by dehumanizing and enslaving them. They have also created a hierarchy to pit the Irish convicts and subjugated Aboriginal people against each other. 

Lieutenant Hawkins contrasts with Clare and Billy as the only main character with societal and political power. He represents all of their problems as a high ranking colonist that perpetuates the inhuman treatment of non-English people and genocide in addition to abusing his power for selfish gains. Everything is going well for him until he's passed over for a promotion he feels he deserves. Instead of accepting gracefully and perhaps improving his leadership for next time, Hawkins decides to traverse through the dangerous wilderness at a breakneck pace to speak directly to the man in charge and make his case. This is the only situation he couldn't kill or rape someone to solve his problem because the defiant person is above him in the hierarchy. His solution is to force those lower than him to go on a treacherous journey where he rapes, murders, manipulates, on his own quest for the promotion he thinks he deserves. Unfortunately, it's at the expense of many others and the example of yet another privileged. mediocre white man who can't take no for an answer. 

At the climax of the film, both Clare and Mangana use their culture, the thing the English tried so hard to destroy, to strike back at Hawkins. At the beginning of the film, Clare is commanded to use her voice for the enjoyment of English officers and sing English folk songs. Hawkins even goes further and demands a special song of his choosing in private that precedes assault. To her child and husband as well as on her journey for revenge, she sings traditional Irish songs in Gaelic. When Clare finally confronts him right in front of the officers he hopes to gain a promotion from, she sings an impassioned song in Gaelic just after accusing him of rape and murder. Although it would be satisfying to see her kill him, this form of revenge is more realistic and more meaningful. It throws her culture in his face and weaponizes the voice he always forced her to use to please her oppressors. Mangana, on the other hand, puts on his tribe's warpaint, attacks Hawkins in the middle of the night while he sleeps, and kills him. He escapes seriously injured. He and Clare celebrate their victory such as it is. It doesn't do much to change the oppressive English force and Billy is most likely going to die, but they did what they were able to and achieved revenge.

The Nightingale proves hard to watch and isn't an enjoyable film. However, it's an important film that sheds light on the background behind racism and bigotry indigenous people are still being treated with today. All over the world, there are similar stories of genocide and enslavement. I was pleased to find out that Jennifer Kent worked closely with Aboriginal Elders of Tasmania to portray their culture in the most respectful and accurate way. Clare's story is very relatable today to women fighting against established, privileged men in power who are still given more of the benefit of the doubt by wider society. I highly recommend this film. Every aspect of it is well made and doesn't lag with the long run time. I was riveted while angry and sad throughout the ordeal.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins