Sunday, February 24, 2013

Review: THE RUNAWAY KING by Jennifer Nielsen

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?

The stunning second installment of The Ascendance Trilogy takes readers on a roller-coaster ride of treason and murder, thrills and peril, as they journey with the Runaway King!
As this is a review of a sequel, be forewarned that I will not avoid any spoilers for the first book in the series. If you have not read The False Prince, I strongly suggest you archive this post for later. However, I won't spoil The Runaway King, so if you're all caught up, keep reading.

Jaron has been king of Carthya for only a month. In that time, he has accumulated little to no sway over his untrustworthy regents. Indeed, it seems only Kerwyn and the motley crew from Farthenwood (Mott, Tobias, and Imogen) remain devoted to Jaron and his position as king. When Jaron is nearly killed in his own gardens, he is left with a message from the pirate king who nearly killed him four years prior: Surrender Conner and yourself, or watch Carthya burn. The regents are only too happy to use this threat as an excuse to hide Jaron away and let a steward take control of the throne.

However, Jaron has come too far and worked too hard to relinquish control of his country to a limp-wristed steward. Unless the pirates are controlled and the neighboring country Avenia is contained,  Carthya will be lost. To save his throne, Jaron must steal time, he must steal power, and he must steal trust. There are some things that a king cannot accomplish. What Carthya needs is a trickster thief. What Carthya needs is Sage.

The Runaway King opens with what may be one of my favorite opening lines ever.
I had arrived early for my own assassination.
Hee! Of course you did, Jaron.

I loved this line. First of all, you can't beat a good attempted assassination. We know it will merely be attempted because Jaron is talking in the past tense, and this is no paranormal where the character comes back as a ghost. No, TRK is a solid, middle grade fantasy. Also, arriving anything but on time is so Jaron. Any prince who pretends to be an orphan pretending to be a prince cannot be ordered to arrive on time for anything.

The Runaway King was such a fun book. In the beginning, it has a distinctly King of Attolia vibe. Despite being king, Jaron is trapped. Trapped by his responsibilities, trapped by his regents, trapped by the enemies both at his borders and within them. It's a hard life for a boy who has become accustomed to freedom. 

As fun as it is to watch Jaron squirm and act out, the fun really begins when he runs away to reassume his disguise as Sage. He's such a deliciously sly and snarky boy. I found myself chuckling on several occasions and marveling at others. Though a liar, Sage speaks at least the partial truth most of the time, and I loved the dual meanings to the things he says.

Attribution
I think readers will love this book, especially those within the intended middle-grade audience. Boys and girls alike will enjoy Jaron's tricky machinations as well as his more heroic inclinations. There's a heavy dose of adventure here, with pirates and thieves galore. Pirates! We get to go to a pirate camp! The eleven-year-old in me was ready to go swashbuckling. Ms. Nielsen also provides more romance in this book than the first one, though I can't say I'm completely sold on it. 

I think the biggest negative I had with this book isn't a true negative but more of a fact that must be accepted. This series is a middle grade series and as such must work within certain constraints. Whereas The False Prince was able to portray the ruthlessness of Sage's world while still following the unspoken rules of middle-grade literature, The Runaway King had moments that were too tame for my tastes.

For instance, while I am a great admirer of both pirates and thieves, the ones Jaron encounters are as a whole too honorable. They have a code. Not a guideline, break-it-when-we-feel-like-it, Pirates of the Caribbean type code either, but rather an actual code with attached punishment for disobedience. While the code does help keep the action PG, I also found it hard to believe. Really? These are the fearsome, bloodthirsty pirates that are supposed to make us tremble?

Attribution
I also found it hard to believe how neatly certain threads of the story are wrapped up, especially how Jaron chooses to fill the spots of the missing regents. (Remember, he lost a few in the last book.) Not only do I have a hard time believing that there wasn't some sort of law against at least one of his choices, but several of his choices simply were not politically prudent. I'm all for risky plans, but I found myself rolling my eyes here.

But again, I suspect much of my complaints have to do with the intended audience. The Runaway King is an MG tale, not YA. It can afford to be a little more clear cut, more black-and-white, more fairytale-like in its structure.

All in all, The Runaway King was loads of fun, if a bit predictable. Middle-grade readers will love it, as will anyone who enjoyed Jaron's antics in The False Prince. I look forward to seeing what our trickster king gets himself into in the next book.

Points Added For: Jaron and his tricky self, Mott for remaining awesome, Jaron's injuries (I don't like it when protags. remain unscathed), Jaron's insistence that he does not run (very similar to Gen's "I can do anything!"), pirates!

Points Subtracted For: Some of the more MG-required restraints, a plot twist that I totally guessed, the Imogen-Amarinda mess.

Good For Fans Of: The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner,

Notes For Parents: I don't remember any language. However, there is murder and sword-fighting.

Note: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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