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Holly Black on her upcoming book ‘The Prisoner’s Throne’ and her fantasy author friend group

Plus, how author Leigh Bardugo changed Holly Black’s "Cruel Prince" series as book lovers know it.
Holly Black
Holly Black's next book, "The Prisoner's Throne," comes out March 5.Courtesy Sharona Jacobs
/ Source: TODAY

Ask any dedicated fan of BookTok, the bookish corner of TikTok, for a fantasy and romance book recommendation, and Holly Black's "The Cruel Prince" is sure be mentioned.

Black has written across age categories and genres, from the children’s fantasy series, “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” to her adult debut, “The Book of Night.” But fans are particularly vocal about her young adult "Folk of the Air" trilogy.

Originally published in January 2018, the series gained a new audience through BookTok's explosion in popularity amid the COVID-19 pandemic, alongside genre staples like Leigh Bardugo's "Six of Crows" duology and Sarah J. Maas' "A Court of Thorns and Roses" series. In fact, according to a 2021 study, Bardugo, Maas and Black took the top three spots for most popular books on BookTok based on views.

"The Folk of the Air" series is set in the fictional world of Elfhame, a collection of islands inhabited by faeries and other magical creatures that largely go unseen by people in the surrounding mortal lands. The first three novels — "The Cruel Prince," "The Wicked King" and "The Queen of Nothing" — follow Jude, an ambitious mortal girl raised in Elfhame struggling to belong in the cutthroat world of the faeries. Her quest for power and affluence features an enemies-to-lovers romance with a faerie prince named Cardan.

Jude's story wrapped up in 2019 with the third book in the trilogy. But halfway through writing "The Queen of Nothing," Black was struck by two minor characters from the original trilogy.

First, there's Jude's younger brother, Oak, who, through a traumatic and complicated family history, is an heir to the throne of Elfhame. Oak was just a kid when readers first met him in the original series, but he was a linchpin at the center of the conflict.

"The fact that there was a war that had you at its center, at least in part — knowing all that and knowing that your family made all these sacrifices for you, what is your obligation to be fine? What is your obligation to pretend that you're fine?" Black says of Oak.

Then, there's Suren, or Wren, a child queen of a brutal rival territory who briefly appears in the third installment.

"Writing about this sort of scary, tiny, queen, I thought... 'What does it mean to be terrifying, but probably also terrified?'" Black says.

These two characters set the stage for a follow-up duology, set eight years after the events of "The Queen of Nothing." Released in 2023, "The Stolen Heir" is told from Suren's point of view as she comes into her power after running amok as a "feral" child in the mortal world.

Black's next book about Elfhame, "The Prisoner's Throne," is told from Oak's perspective and will give fans a highly anticipated update on Jude and Cardan, nearly five years after "The Queen of Nothing" published.

"The Prisoner's Throne," out March 5, picks up right after the previous book's final plot twist, which left many fans torn between a newfound fondness for Suren and a longstanding loyalty to Jude and her family. And Black isn't apologizing for it.

"I'm glad they're conflicted," Black says.

Below, Black walks us through the process of writing "The Prisoner's Throne," what it was like bringing back Jude and Cardan and how her friendships with other fantasy authors inspire her.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What was it like writing from Suren's perspective, as a new character amid a familiar cast?

So much of her story is about somebody who makes themselves small. I was worried, though, writing about her. I really felt like, "Are people gonna go on this journey?" I had to continuously revise her to make sure that she was active enough and present enough and not so turned in on herself that she was sort of inaccessible.

I don't think I've ever written a character like Wren, and I just really was like, "I don't know, if people will like her." It felt weirdly personal.

Do you feel like you relate to Wren?

I mean, I'm a very shy, anxious person. So, absolutely — writing about shy, anxious people isn't the easiest thing to do, because what we love in a character is a character who moves plot. We want a character who's gonna eat up story, not a character who's like, "Could I maybe go home?" We don't like that. We are that, but we don't love it. When you can create a character who both thinks things like that and somehow moves plot ... it's a tricky thing to do.

The last book ends on a cliffhanger after Suren's betrayal. In ‘The Prisoner’s Throne,’ what was it like writing beloved character Jude as a potential adversary to Suren, who people have grown to love?

It’s hard because you spend a lot of time as a writer trying to figure out what happens. I think that a lot of the narrative tension that you hope to produce is only present for you as panic. Like, “Oh no, what am I doing? How will I pay this through?" But I had an idea of where I was gonna go, and then it was a question of, “How do you make that satisfying?”

Specifically, I knew I wanted to go back to Elfhame. The danger in that is that there’s a lot of characters there that people really love and care about and want to see and want to know about — and making those characters not take over the story.

Fans seem split between rooting for Wren and rooting for Jude.

That’s great. I’m glad they’re conflicted. I’m glad that they are interested in knowing how this will play out. I hope they like it because there’s also a way in which living in that tension is really pleasurable. And answering that is always going to be a greater challenge. Now you’ve set it up and playing it through, it’s hard, because each person may wish for a slightly different variation of what happens.

I will say my Instagram seems full of people who are just like, “Don’t hurt Jude and Cardan.” I always enjoy getting these messages when I’m like, “This book is gone. There’s nothing I can do.”

What was it like writing about Jude and Cardan again?

It's fun to write them. But if the end of the first book was hard, the end of the second book is ridiculous. These are people who are really smart and who are really powerful, and each one of them has to do something that makes us know them. It would be great if they could all just sit out some of the stuff that happens, but they each have big moves. And so that's hard. But it was a delight to see all these people again and to check in with them now many years later.

Do you have plans to write more books set in Elfhame and featuring Jude and Cardan?

I think that there's one thing in ("The Prisoner's Throne") that I know I'm gonna hear a lot of, and it's the very, very end. Because it's very clear what's going to happen next.

There's definitely, and obviously, a story that's being set up at the very end.

Do you engage with social media and BookTok at all?

I don’t. I have made two TikToks in my whole life.

Sometimes people will send me stuff, or it’ll wash up on my shores. But I mostly stay out of all fan conversations. I will look at fan art obviously, love all the jokes, love all the fun stuff. I understand there’s probably a lot of very specific granular conversations happening out there and arguments that probably would be very interesting for me, but which I should definitely avoid. 

As a writer, you have to write for yourself, like you are the only audience you will ever truly know. And I think you have to write for your reader self, not your writer self. You can go very wrong thinking about like, “Well, what would be interesting writer-ly?” But, what would you love as a reader? I think you have to write that, and I think a lot of times, that means not thinking anyone’s gonna read it, kind of playing a game with yourself where, “Don’t worry, nobody’s gonna ever read this, so you can be as open, or you can put as much in that makes you uncomfortable, or you can do some things that feel embarrassing” — whatever it is, to access that, you have to shut out everything else.

The world comes back in in the editing process, certainly, but I think in the writing process, it really is better to not know all the things that people want addressed.

Although God knows, the one thing I do know — and it strikes me as very strange — but people really want to know when Jude’s going to have a baby.

But I will answer the question in this book.

Going back to the publication of "The Cruel Prince", when did you notice the level of fandom the series has reached?

After the first book came out, people’s reactions were really, really interesting. People really liked Cardan way more than I thought. I was really scared. I thought people would not like him. I was surprised how much people were willing to get on board with him, but they definitely told me they wanted him to suffer.

I remember really specifically I was on tour in the UK, and one of the booksellers said, “So when does the next book start? Like what time?” I had gotten this question like a couple of times, and I finally was like, “OK, what’s the question behind the question, what are you asking me?” And they said, “Well, you know, she has control over him. So I really want to see that. But then, I want him to have control, too.” And I was like, this is a very specific request, but you have fully identified for me the thing you’re engaged with here.

Then with "Wicked King," a lot of people came in after that book. And in 2020 with TikTok, that was a huge shift, a huge shift in terms of readers.

You've mentioned the importance of having your writer friends read your work. What does that friend group dynamic look like?

I'm living in Amherst, Massachusetts. So Kelly (Link, author of "The Book of Love") is one town over. And Cassie (Cassandra Clare, author of "The Mortal Instruments" series) is about five miles down the road. At 2:30, the three of us are going for a walk, because we see each other all the time. We write together, and it's interesting, because I do think there is an assumption that there's certain people who know each other because they're in the same genre. But I think a lot of times, the people you wind up friends with are not necessarily the people who you would guess all know each other.

Then on Sunday, Cassie and I are going away to a writing retreat with a bunch of other people. We’re gonna meet up with Leigh Bardugo and Robin Wasserman and Maureen Johnson and a bunch of people that we’ve known for a really long time. It’s a workaholics vacation — you go to a nice place, but you do the same thing you do every other day.

How often do you find ideas coming from those relationships?

The best thing about being a writer is knowing other writers, from my perspective. It is the absolute best thing, having those friendships. And part of that is talking story. I'm reading two people's novels for when I see them, and we're going to talk about it.

I really rely on my friends to tell me, "Is this working? Does this make sense?" When I was writing "Book of Night," I was trying to write a relationship in which the people already were together, which is something that I truly love, but it's so hard to do. So I wrote it a couple ways, and I remember going to Kelly and Cassie and being like, "Is this working?" And they were like, "It is not working." And we talked about it and talked about it. I went off, and I was like, "I have fixed it."... So I brought it back, and they were like, "You have made it worse." But like, because of that, I fixed it! Because of that, I figured out what I needed to do.

Leigh, when I was writing "Cruel Prince," was like, "You have to make this guy meaner." I was like, "What? He's so mean." And she was like, "He has to be worse. " I was like, "Well, this may just be your preference, but ... OK."

Do you have any screen adaptations or options of your stories in the works?

I mean, we've been talking to some people, but there's nothing definitive, nothing to share of that kind.

Things do move, just in their own pace. So, fingers crossed. I would love to see the right adaptation for "Folk of the Air," I think it would be really fun.