Holly Black Talks Returning to the World of Elfhame In The Stolen HeirBooks Features Holly Black
If you’ve read any sort of fantasy fiction about the world of Faerie in the past decade, you’ve probably come across the work of Holly Black. And with good reason—few authors writing today manage to make the lush, magical realm of the fairy folk more appealing. Or more frightening, if we’re honest.
Her mega-popular Folk of the Air trilogy—The Cruel Prince, The Wicked King and The Queen of Nothing—was a New York Times bestselling series, and captivated millions of readers around the world. Now, Black takes us back to this magical realm with The Stolen Heir, a sequel that picks up the threads of several of the original trilogy’s minor characters eight years after the original books—and takes them (and us) into some darker, more disturbing places.
The story primarily follows Suren, the young changeling queen from the Court of Teeth whom we met briefly in The Queen of Nothing and whose abusive relationship with her parents has led her to abandon Faerie for the moral world, where she lives feral in the woods. Lonely and haunted, she spends most of her time releasing humans from ill-considered bargains with faeries and trying to avoid the storm hag Bogdana who serves her mother’s court. But when she’s rescued from the witch by none other than Elfhame’s heir, Prince Oak, the pair will set off on a journey that will force Wren to face all the horrors—both physical and mental—she thought she’d left behind for good.
We got the chance to chat with Black herself about her highly anticipated return to the world of her Folk of the Air trilogy, what continually draws her to tell stories about the realm of Faerie, and whether readers can expect to see The Cruel Prince power couple Carden and Jude again.
Paste Magazine: First, let me just say that I loved The Stolen Heir and am so glad to be back in the world of Faerie! What made you want to return to writing in this universe? (Or was that always the plan?)
Holly Black: I am so glad! When I was writing The Queen of Nothing, I had the idea for what I wanted to do with Suren and Oak. Writing The Stolen Heir gave me an opportunity to expand my faerie universe and to see it (as well as an older Cardan and Jude) from a new angle. It also gives me a chance to set up some new things that are going to play out in the future of Elfhame…
Paste: What can readers expect from this story? It seems as though The Stolen Heir really expands this world beyond just Elfhame, from the Court of Moths to the Court of Teeth and more.
Black: The Stolen Heir is a road trip story. We go on a quest with Suren and Oak and in the process, we get to explore different areas of Faerie, including the spaces where the mortal world touches Elfhame, other Courts, and the terrifying Ice Citadel. We also learn a lot more about the nature of hags, the witches of this world. But most of all, The Stolen Heir is about queens, and monsters, and tricksters. It’s a book about people who have to make difficult choices, and who have good reason to distrust one another, yet yearn to be trusted.
Paste: Nine years have passed since the events in The Queen of Nothing. Did you spend a lot of time plotting out what’s changed for various characters since then?
Black: I thought a lot about what has changed in that time. Jude and Cardan have had time to settle into their power. I needed to figure out what sorts of changes they made, and how other Courts feel about their rule. How do those feelings, for good or ill, affect the way Oak is seen as presumptive heir? What sorts of things does an exiled redcap general do in the mortal world? What’s up with the Undersea? A lot can happen in nine years.
Paste: We saw Oak grow up over the course of the Folk of the Air trilogy—or at least become a little more mature by the third book. Where do you think he is now in terms of his own personal journey as The Stolen Heir begins? What is he struggling with? What does he want?
Black: Well, what he wants—and in particular why he is on this quest—are some of the questions that Wren is trying to discover. On one hand, he’s been a prince of Elfhame, adored and perhaps spoiled by sisters and a mother who want only to protect him. On the other hand, he’s been a pawn in the Great Game since before he was even born. He’s survived assassination attempts. He’s kept secrets. And maybe he’s keeping secrets from her.
Paste: We only saw a very little bit of Suren in The Queen of Nothing. (And what we did see was kind of awful and tragic.) What is it about her character that made you want to dig a bit more into her story and who she is and tell this story from her perspective?
Black: I was interested in telling the story of someone who had some key pieces of story in common with Jude, but with significant differences. Like Jude, Wren was a scared kid torn away from a mortal life and brought to Faerie. But Wren is a faerie. Yet she was unloved, and hurt, and became terrifying as well as terrified. Over the course of The Stolen Heir, she is going to be asked some of the questions that Jude was asked, but she is going to make some very different choices.
Paste Magazine: Everything about the Court of Teeth is basically terrifying, by the way. Where did the inspiration for this violent, even darker corner of Faerie come from?
Black: Faerie folklore can be quite violent and scary—whether it’s being eaten by a kelpie (or any of the other creatures that might eat you), dancing yourself to death in a faerie ring, or dying of desire as with a love-talker. One of the things I want to draw out is the way that Faerie operates by a different set of rules and defies human standards of behavior. They are wild and capricious, like the weather. I wanted the Court of Teeth to make you feel the otherness of Faerie.
I suppose another part of my inspiration was reading accounts of monstrous parents in trying to figure out Wren’s story. It turns out that humans can also defy human standards of behavior in horrific ways.
Paste Magazine: How would you describe Oak and Suren’s relationship? Any hints on where it’s going? (She said, like a true and immediate shipper!)
Black: They both have an attraction to one another and good reason to deny it. Wren has been violently wrenched away from anyone who cared about her and Oak feels as though his existence has hurt the people closest to him. I am very interested in people who seem very different from the outside, but understand something integral about one another.
I think that Wren sees Oak in a way that not a lot of other people do—while she finds him charming, she also sees that underneath that charm, he’s dangerous. And he sees that she is both brave and good, two things that most people cannot see in her. But none of that means they’re on the same side.
Paste Magazine: The Stolen Heir is the first half of a duology. And I’ve read that its sequel will be from a different point of view, dealing with many of the same things we see here, but from a different angle. Can you tell us a little about why you wanted to frame the story this way?
Black: The second book of the duology picks up where the first one left off, but even though we’re moving forward, we’re still going to see the events of the first book in a new light in Oak’s memories. We’re also going to uncover many of his secrets, and understand what was going on in Elfhame that led to the choices Oak made in The Stolen Heir. I wanted to frame the story this way because I’d read realistic fiction duologies that were structured like that and was interested to see what I could do in fantasy, where there was a lot hidden from the reader because all the characters were involved in their own intrigue.
Paste: What was different—or more challenging—about writing a book from Wren’s POV versus Jude’s?
Black: Jude is someone who wants to smash through barriers and stab everything. That kind of character is fun to write because they run toward story. Wren was a challenge because she’s spent so long disconnected from herself. She’s been hiding from her desires. She’s a very different character from one I’ve written before, and I needed to find new ways to explore her story and push her out of stasis.
Paste: And the question I know every reader wants me to ask: Will we see some of our faves from the High Court (cough Cardan cough) in this series and catch up on how their lives have changed since then?
Black: We will! I am about halfway through the second book now, and we definitely will get to see Jude and Cardan, both in Oak’s memories and in the present.
Paste: When I think of authors writing stories about the world of faeries, yours is always the first name that comes to mind—your work is so distinct and rich. What is it about Faerie that keeps drawing you back in as an author? Do you think you’ll ever get tired of writing in this world?
Black: That’s very kind! I think Faerie itself is so rich that it’s easy to come back to. It’s not just one creature or one place, but an ecosystem of goblins, trolls, nixies, pixies, sprites, shagfoals, hags, kelpies, nisse, and so many more. It’s magic, just out of the corner of our eye, around a bend in the road, or in the abandoned building down the lane.
But what I’ve always been fascinated by is the way that Faerie is like the fruit of the goblin market in Christina Rosetti’s poem—something that you shouldn’t want, but you want anyway. A ruinous beauty. A disastrous desire. I love that.
Paste: What do you hope fans take away from this new series?
Black: Look, I like weird stuff! Cardan has a tail! And he’s fairly awful! I thought there was a good chance people wouldn’t like him. Now, I’m writing about Oak with his goat feet and horns, and Suren with her blue skin and sharp teeth and feral nature. I love the strange. The monstrous. The characters who make bad decisions and big mistakes. And what I hope most is that there are readers who like strange things too and are excited to go on this new journey with me.
Paste: And my forever favorite question: What are you reading right now?
Black: I recently read Midnight Girls, the tale of two rival witch apprentices fighting over the heart of a prince— to eat it. A delight! And How to Keep House While Drowning, which is about managing to get things done when you’re overwhelmed.
In terms of adult novels, I am lucky enough to have read two books that are yet to come out — Kelly Link’s gorgeous novel, Book of Love, and Cassandra Clare’s fabulous high fantasy, Sword Catcher.
The Stolen Heir will officially hit shelves on January 3, 2023.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.