There is very little time between the second and third books of Jennifer A. Nielsen’s Ascendance Trilogy; there is in fact a bit of overlap between the last chapters of the second book and the first chapters of the third. The third book does very little to recap Jaron’s previous exploits, and it jumps immediately into the action and into the drama. Because I tried to begin the third book of Jennifer Nielsen’s Ascendance Trilogy after having finished the second in March 2014 and finished the first chapter unable to remember whom a particular character was and how he was able to enter the kings’ private garden and then be hugged by the weeping king, I went back and reread book 2 before returning again to retry book 3, and I think I advise reading the two books back-to-back if that option is available to you too. If you have to read the prologue of The Shadow Throne to reignite your delight in the series, somewhat diminished perhaps by The Runaway King, do that first, then return to The Runaway King and remember what you’re reading up to and why you’re reading. DO NOT run to the Wikia site for the series to answer your questions; I spoiled a bit of The Shadow Throne’s ending for myself doing so.
Especially as I neared the end of The Shadow Throne and of The Ascendance Trilogy, I parroted Sam Gamgee’s quote from Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Two Towers:
“And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened?”
Nielsen has never shied from the dark and the brutal; it’s that more than anything else that tips this series from middle-grade to teen. With Carthya at war, surrounded by more powerful enemies on all sides, all of them invading or pressing at the borders, this book is even darker than the other two. The plot seems to bounce Jaron, Roden, Tobias, Fink, Imogen, and Amarinda, all teenagers or younger, in and out of battles and in out of captivity. Their captors are cruel, and Nielsen describes in some detail some of the fiercer beatings, using whips, truncheons, the flats of swords, boots, and fists. The captives are starved and humiliated. There’s psychological torture besides: offers to spare another captive in exchange for information or obedience, offers to save one of two captives but condemn another….
Jaron’s cleverness shines through in all its glory as a tactician and military leader and his love for Carthya and for humanity, his desire to better the lives of everyone, and to sacrifice himself all shine too.
But this is a story about the power of love. Love gives a person purpose, someone or something to fight for, someone or something to fight to return to. Though Jaron claims not to understand this till very late in the book, his actions are driven by love more often than he admits and it’s this that makes his armies and himself powerful in the face of overwhelming odds. Jaron has generated a great deal of love and loyalty among those he knows and those he rules. The attacking armies have greater numbers, but the Carthyans fight for Jaron and for Carthya. It is love that motivates Jaron to escape his first and maybe most brutal captivity of this book, love and fear for a friend.
This book seems to have garnered a lot more criticism on Goodreads than I’d have expected: for being more predictable than previous books, for doing little that was original as a war fiction book, for being war fiction at all. Perhaps these critiques are not unfounded, but I found myself willing to go along with Nielsen and with Jaron through a war fiction (especially coming directly off of the action and hijinks of The Runaway King), and I appreciated the way that details from previous books became clear as forethought for backup plans and backup backup plans in this book, showing if not some spectacularly original thinking on Jaron’s part (at least not when we as readers have read through hundreds of wars in a hundreds of different worlds) then at least some very insightful thinking and careful planning by Nielsen. I allowed Nielsen to play with my heartstrings a bit. [SPOILER] I at first believed that Imogen was dead, then reasoned she couldn’t be, then as time went on and she didn’t reappear, decided that she must be, and then she was back, and I was surprised to see Imogen back when she came back but was surprised because I believed that Nielsen had done away with her, and a lot of people are calling this a cop-out, and maybe it could be, but it was also the only way to happily resolve the series within a trilogy. Had she been dead, Jaron would have been a victor in the war maybe, but he would have been a broken and hollow man. Because the point of this book and this series was the power and strength to be found in love, Jaron had to be happily married, had to be in love—not necessarily with Imogen, but with someone, and he had to be married for love and not for duty. So that’s my answer to those who cry cop-out, a cry I’d probably otherwise raise myself. [END SPOILER] Some of what came as a surprise to Jaron and, because read in his first-person narration, read like plot twists, did not come as a surprise to me, but that I believe was within character for him. Though otherwise good at figuring out people, he was always slow to see love, not unlike Sherlock Holmes (at least within the BBC universe). I would be very unsurprised to learn that Holmes gave some inspiration to Jaron actually. So then again I see reason that the plot twists seemed less twisty—and again I offer my argument that this is a series about the power of love ultimately, so love had thematically to win (here I am talking about a specific “twist”).
Ultimately, as a war book, as a conclusion to a series of mounting danger and threat, I was satisfied. I do feel, like many, that the first in this series is perhaps best because Jaron is most loveable at his most carefree and most obnoxious, but the series builds as it should, and concludes as it should.
Nielsen, Jennifer A. The Ascendance Trilogy, Book 3: The Shadow Throne. New York: Scholastic, 2015. First published 2014.
This review is not endorsed by Jennifer A. Nielsen or Scholastic Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.