Book review: Jennifer A. Nielsen’s “The Runaway King”

Back in the first half of 2012, Jennifer A. Nielsen came out with “The False Prince,” the first book in her new series named “The Ascendance Trilogy.” In it, we are introduced to the young orphan Sage as he finds himself drawn into a plot that intends to install an impostor on the vacated throne of the kingdom of Carthya.

With its blend of political maneuvering, interesting characterizations, and the witty, wisecracking, and wonderfully fleshed-out voice of Sage providing the narration, “The False Prince” became a runaway hit. The New York Times called it “a page turner,” while Publishers Weekly called it an “impressive, promising story” in a starred review.

It’s no wonder that its sequel, “The Runaway King,” was eagerly awaited for by fans. But with so much acclaim and goodwill attached to the book that came before it, will “The Runaway King” live up to expectations, or will it prove to be a victim to the sophomore slump?

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The action begins immediately in “The Runaway King,” as the now King Jaron finds himself the target of an assassination attempt only a month into his reign. And it’s not just any ordinary attempt – the assassination is carried out by Roden, whom he had parted less than amicably with at the end of “The False Prince.” Roden brings with him a message – Jaron must give himself up to the parents who had planned to kill him years ago or risk starting a war between Carthya and Avenia.

Jaron survives the attempted assassination, but then finds himself battling his regents as they think him unfit to rule. His regents do not believe his claims of war being fermented by the king of Avenia and the ruthless pirates that live in Tarblade Bay, and they decide to pick a regent to rule in Jaron’s stead, at least until he comes of age.

With no options left to him, Jaron takes matters into his own hands and seeks out the pirates of Tarblade Bay. To infiltrate their ranks, Jaron finds himself playing the part of Sage once more. And with more than just the throne of Carthya at stake, Jaron may just need all the wits of Sage around him to survive the challenges to come.

Suddenly finding oneself responsible for the fate of a whole country is sure to change even the most responsible of adults, so what more for a boy just in his teens? It’s a heavy burden that Jaron now carries, and it’s immediately apparent in the change of his “voice” in “The Runaway King.”

If Sage in “The False Prince” was all wit and charm, Jaron in “The Runaway King” has a little more angst coursing through his veins. The snappy comebacks are still there, but they’re less playful and just as likely to be accompanied by an angry outburst this time around. It’s a change that some readers may find jarring, but it’s something that works for the first half of the novel. The change makes it easy for the readers to feel the desperation Jaron is feeling as the options available to him are quickly dwindling, and his country is put into ever more danger.

But while this change in tone may make it easier for readers to feel Jaron’s own distrust and paranoia, it doesn’t make it any easier for them to follow him through the book’s not quite as riveting plot. The plot, like Jaron, seems to meander aimlessly for most of the book, and it’s hard to keep pushing through it when the voice guiding you through the book treads dangerously close to that of a whiny teenager.

The book’s supporting characters also fail to pick up the slack. Princess Amarinda and Imogen, two female characters who managed to hold their own against the mostly male cast of characters in “The False Prince,” don’t fare as well in this new installment. Amarinda is barely present in the novel, even as she plays an important role in keeping the kingdom of Carthya safe from any usurpers while Jaron is away with the pirates. Imogen provides pivotal help to Jaron throughout his time with the pirates, but is never really given enough time to really shine.

The fearsome pirates of Tarblade Bay are equally disappointing. They don’t actually do anything as menacing as their reputations make them out to be, and it’s hard to feel any anxiety for Jaron because the pirates seem too non-threatening to cause any harm. Readers may even wonder why Jaron would worry about them in the first place.

The hidden villain in “The Runaway King” doesn’t provide any surprises either, as Nielsen isn’t exactly subtle when leaving the clues that identify who’s working inside the castle to usurp Jaron’s place on the throne. He suffers from the same problem that Conner did in “The False Prince” – he’s never as interesting as Jaron, and his motives aren’t exactly that well-hidden.

While “The False Prince” has a definite ending, “The Runaway King” ends on a cliffhanger, one that might infuriate those who didn’t exactly enjoy the long and tedious road it took to get there. Nevertheless, it presents a new challenge that hopefully allows Nielsen to redeem the characters that were so well-loved in the first book of her trilogy.

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