Tag Archives: Jennifer A. Nielsen

Book Review: Love and War in The Shadow Throne

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TST_exlargeThere 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.

Book Review: The Runaway King’s Step Forward Feels a Bit Like a Step Backward

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Click to visit the author's page for links to order, summary, and honors given the book.

Spoilers for both this and its prequel, but more for the prequel than this.

I greatly enjoyed The False Prince, the first book in Jennifer A. Nielsen’s The Ascendance Trilogy. When the sequel, The Runaway King, was recently released in paperback, I quickly snatched it up. The book all but opens with a violent sword fight and the threat of pirates. It’s difficult not to get caught up in the action of these first few chapters, during which I found myself smiling over the cover to tell coworkers how much they would love this book and then reading a line or two to them or explaining bits of the plot. That momentum carried me easily to the next fight and that the momentum of that to the following fight, etc. till the conclusion, and then I was propelled towards a yearning for the third book (not as of yet acquired) by a cliffhanger.

Some of what I most loved about The False Prince was missing from The Runaway King: the unreliable narration of Sage’s/Jaron’s, the surprise that I felt at the revelation of what he had been doing and thinking behind other characters’ and the readers’ backs. I tell myself—and I think I am right—that the absence of that unreliable narration, the withholding of information that allowed me to be surprised is the direct result of Jaron’s character growth, and so as much as I missed being surprised, I cannot fault the greater honesty of the narration. Jaron now has more people whom he trusts and is trusted by more people. Because he is more honest with his friends—having legitimate friends for the first time in a very long time—he cannot be as dishonest with himself as the first person narrator, his friends, or the reader. That desire for friends, for trust, to be trusted is going to get him in trouble both in this and in the next book I predict, however.

The plot of this story revolves around Jaron’s desire to find Roden, who had near the end of The False Prince challenged Sage for the throne one last time and who had been sent away before Sage could reveal himself truly to be Jaron. Jaron in The Runaway King claims to have believed that he and Roden were friends prior to the poisoning of Roden’s mind by the greedy servant Cregan. A threat from this same Roden to surrender or see his kingdom destroyed by pirates, who will be begin by destroying those closest to Jaron distracts Jaron from that personal quest and moves him towards two more urgent quests: defending his country without surrendering himself and protecting his throne from the machinations of his regents who are considering putting a steward in his place to rule till Jaron comes of age.

Emily at More Than One Page makes an excellent point when she remarks that first and third books are often better than the second.

The end of The Runaway King pushes the reader towards the third book, The Shadow Throne, recently released in hardcover. It was almost a cliffhanger worthy of Rick Riordan (I’m still both impressed by and bitter about the ending of The Mark of Athena). This book just escapes being a bridge book in my mind. Little happens with regards to the overarching plot of the war for Carthya (Jaron’s kingdom) till the last pages. Jaron and his countrymen are reevaluating the set up of their government. Dangerous men are being unmasked. Jaron is putting friends in high places. I will be very interested to see how those favored friends will be received by better-established officials in The Shadow Throne.

The book still in my opinion teeters on being acceptable for mature middle-grade readers even though it’s marketed for teens. Many of the reviews on Goodreads put a lot more emphasis on the romantic triangle of the series than I as yet feel is particularly warranted by the text. These books are still to me adventure and survival stories more than they are romances. The Amarinda-Jaron-Imogen romance is nowhere near as prominent or heart-fluttering for me as Percabeth, and Riordan’s books are deemed (though perhaps the later ones are becoming less so) appropriate for middle-grade readers.

I look forward to The Shadow Throne and being able to give you my opinion of the completed story arc and the series as a whole.

****

Nielsen, Jennifer A.  The Ascendance Trilogy, Book 2: The Runaway King.  New York: Scholastic, 2014. First published 2013.

This review is not endorsed by Jennifer A. Nielsen or Scholastic Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The False Prince is Aptly Titled

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Just a touch of vague spoilers.

A friend of mine has been telling me to read Jennifer A. Nielsen’s The False Prince, first in The Ascendance Trilogy, since before it was published.  I wish that I had listened sooner—though I suppose that since I did wait, I will have a shorter wait between books, which is a boon.

A high fantasy set in a kingdom on the brink of a civil war, one man has a plan to avoid the war by training a prince for the throne—a prince culled from orphanages around the kingdom.

The narrator and de facto protagonist Sage is a wonderfully entertaining (so snarky) and terribly unreliable narrator.  This is a plot of plots, secrets, and lies, trust and distrust, and Sage embodies all of these.  He will deny having done something—something we’ve not seen him do—only to reveal later that somewhere between the narration he has done exactly as he has told the other characters that he has not; he reveals to the reader and the characters only some—and not all of it is true.  This book finely uses red herrings, the author and the protagonist working together to mislead and misdirect readers and characters—and mislead both successfully.

What is stunning is that Sage comes off as relatively open about his history and thoughts.  I didn’t feel misled till he began to reveal what he had hidden.  I should have suspected he was working between the lines from the number of knives and knickknacks that he pilfered without telling me, but I was not clever enough to take these as foreshadowing.

Though Nielsen hints at larger stories and more developed characters behind several of side characters, especially Mott, whose history I hope to see revealed in sequels, and Amarinda, Sage spends so much time veiling his own history and keeps others at such a distance that these characters lacked the detailed backstories that I hoped for them.  I hope sequels will remedy this.

The plot, scraped bare of all the complexities of its narrator and its characters, is an exciting one in its own right: stop civil war by committing treason, learn the lie or die.  Nielsen manages to make two weeks of lessons in a confined setting go by quickly, mostly by utilizing Sage’s snarky wit and practiced nonchalance.

I have a difficult time placing this book at an appropriate reading level and am glad to see it surviving despite that difficulty.  In its length and its protagonists’ need to find his place among a group of peers and in society, it is middle-grade.  A few of the more brutal lessons and its “or die” plot that leaves the reader thinking two young teens will be killed before the end of the novel push it towards a teen reading level, as does the inferred questioning of the established order and morality.  Plus, Sage is fifteen, a little old for the first book of a typical middle-grade series.  Barnes & Noble places it in the teen section.

I suspect that as this series goes on, it will become more firmly teen, politics and romance taking even more prominent roles.  Sage is a character I’m not willing to confine to one book.  I look forward to seeing him again.

****

Nielsen, Jennifer A.  The Ascendance Trilogy, Book 1: The False Prince.  New York: Scholastic, 2012.

This review is not endorsed by Jennifer A. Nielsen or Scholastic Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.