Review: The Runaway King by Jennifer A. Nielsen (@nielsenwriter @Scholastic)

It’s no big secret that I loved the first book of Jennifer Nielsen’s Ascendance Trilogy, The False Prince. So I was thrilled to finally get my hands on the sequel, The Runaway King. But would it be able to stand up to its predecessor? After all, one of my favorite things about The False Prince was the amazing twist ending, and I wasn’t sure if a sequel could hold up without a similar lightning-strike moment. Then again, if the characters and the story and the writing were still strong, did it need a twist? Maybe not.

Warning – this review will contain spoilers from The False Prince. Proceed at your own risk.

The Plot (from Goodreads)

Just weeks after Jaron has taken the throne, an assassination attempt forces him into a deadly situation. Rumors of a coming war are winding their way between the castle walls, and Jaron feels the pressure quietly mounting within Carthya. Soon, it becomes clear that deserting the kingdom may be his only hope of saving it. But the further Jaron is forced to run from his identity, the more he wonders if it is possible to go too far. Will he ever be able to return home again? Or will he have to sacrifice his own life in order to save his kingdom?

My Thoughts

The Runaway King picks up almost immediately after The False Prince ends, which is both a good and a bad thing. Good because it plunges you straight into the action (and there is quite a bit of action in this one!); bad because if you’re like me and haven’t read TFP in nearly a year, it can be a little confusing to hit the ground running without time to catch your bearings. I might have had to go brush up on the last couple chapters of TFP before continuing on. But that’s okay. You know why? Because the last couple chapters of TFP are awesome.

All the big players from TFP are back in some capacity, as friends and conspirators and spies and villains. Jaron is still the same dangerously cocky youth pulled from the streets, but with a big exception: he is now the king. And the fate of his kingdom rests on his shoulders.

As in TFP, Jaron’s narration is the main driver of the story. If he was a girl, I’d say he’s sassy. Actually, who cares. He’s sassy. He is a swaggering, secretive, sassy boy with a savior complex and trust issues. He comes brimming with strengths and shortcomings, and a lot of the time, he is his own worst enemy. His convoluted plan probably does not need to be nearly as convoluted as it is, but since he’s determined not to show his hand to anyone — even those that could help him — he sets himself up for difficulty. It can be frustrating, especially as other characters are telling him this is a fault and he’s refusing to listen — but at the same time, it’s incredibly true to the character. Everything he does makes sense to him, and that’s the most I can ask from any character in any story.

The supporting characters came and went throughout the story. Probably one of the most important was Imogen, his friend from TFP. Her moments are some of my favorites, as she is smart and strong, yet isn’t afraid to use her perceived weakness as a female to her advantage. Her friendship with Jaron isn’t fair and isn’t balanced, and really, he doesn’t deserve her. Yet she’s there anyway, and he appreciates her for it, in his own way.

The action is plentiful, and there’s never that long of a break between tussles and sword fights. Jennifer Nielsen’s depiction of the action is vivid and allowed me to play the fights out in my head like a movie, which isn’t easy. I did find a couple of the scenes toward the end a bit far-fetched, but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief a bit. The things Jaron does are not impossible — I don’t think — just improbable. I can deal with improbable.

There’s only one character motivation head-scratcher moment, and it’s toward the end. A character switches sides, and it seemed a little too easy. It wasn’t nearly as large a twist as the first book in the series, but it was still unexpected, and I’m not sure it was foreshadowed sufficiently. It’s a fine line to walk, revealing enough details to make the twist believable, without tipping your hand. I feel like this book was almost there, but not quite.

However, those minor complaints aside, I still very much enjoyed this story. It’s the kind of book and series I imagine would get kids — boys and girls alike — excited about reading. It’s clever and funny and has enough action and heart to interest a wide variety of readers, with a fabulously well-developed protagonist and intelligent plotting. Whenever the conclusion to The Ascendance Trilogy hits shelves, you can bet I’ll be at the front of the line.

Review: The False Price by Jennifer A. Nielsen (@nielsenwriter @Scholastic)

Received from Scholastic for review.

The False Prince is the first book in a new mid-grade medieval fantasy trilogy from Jennifer A. Nielsen. I received it in my big box of awesome from Scholastic, and am so glad it was in there. This book is seriously fantastic.

The Plot

The False Prince is the story of Sage, a 14-year-old orphan struggling to survive in the fictional kingdom of Carthya. At the opening of the book, Sage is purchased by Conner, a wealthy nobleman. Conner also purchases three other boys similar in age and appearance to Sage. The boys aren’t sure of the reason for Conner rounding up orphans, but they know it’s probably not good.

Soon, Conner reveals his plot: he intends to groom them to impersonate Prince Jaron, lost prince of Carthya, so that one of them can take over the throne and save the kingdom. They will have two weeks to transform into Jaron. One of the will be selected for a future of luxury and power. The other three, Conner implies, will not have much of a future at all.

Through the two weeks leading up to Conner’s selection, Sage and the other boys struggle to learn all the skills and knowledge befitting a prince, from swordplay and horseback riding to reading, table manners, and the history of Carthya. Their competition is fueled by the knowledge that not being chosen by Conner will result in a fate worse than any they faced in their previous lives as orphans.

My Thoughts

This book was so much fun to read. It was a refreshing change of pace from many of the other books I’ve been reading lately. The False Prince is a witty and engrossing story that doesn’t have a ton of action or adventure, but has plenty of intrigue fueled by engaging characters.

Sage narrates the book in the first person, but he only ever lets us know as much as he wants us to know. So there were several surprises throughout the course of the narrative, when Sage finally decided to clue us into a past action or motivation.

I loved the characters in this book. Nearly all of them were nuanced, with no clear-cut bad guys or good guys (at least until the end). Even Conner, with his devious and treacherous plot, keeps you guessing as to his true motivations. And while Sage starts out disliking his fellow princes-in-training, he eventually forms a tenuous friendship with them as we understand that they, too, are just 14-year-old boys that are in over their heads.

As for Sage himself, he was clever, witty, and reckless. He was frustrating at times, but what 14-year-old boy isn’t? It was exciting to see the story unfold through his eyes. And although Sage is indisputably the hero of this story, he has definite weaknesses and flaws, which is kind of refreshing. Too often I think male protagonists are just good at everything, and it gets annoying. Sage can indeed be annoying, but it’s not because he’s The Awesomest Ever. It’s because he’s a kid, and kids can be kind of annoying. But he was also likable and charismatic, and I was completely rooting for him.

And the story…I just loved it. It’s a fairly simple story that takes place almost entirely in the same setting (Conner’s estate). But the challenges the boys face, the constant threat of what Conner will do with the boys who are not chosen, and the slow revealing of the nature of the royal court of Carthya, made this book hard to put down.

Actually, it was impossible to put down. I thought I was going to put it down and go bed, and then a huge twist completely woke me up. So I wound up reading the entire thing in one day.

Although this is the first book in a trilogy, the ending wraps up the events in this book neatly. So you won’t find yourself frustrated with a cliffhanger ending. I kind of hate when a book ends on a cliffhanger, then I have to wait months (or more) to find out what happens. This one is open to sequels, but doesn’t need a sequel for you to feel satisfied.

I’d recommend this book to anyone, be they young teens or adults, male or female. It’s easy to read, totally engrossing, and left me feeling utterly content and happy at the end. Needless to say, I am eagerly awaiting the sequel!

Content Guide: Contains violence