Book Review: The Runaway King, by Jennifer A. Nielsen

This is the second book in a series. My review on book one: The False Prince, can be found here.

My family loved The False Prince, the first book in this series. It’s one of the few books we’ve all wanted to listen to (my wife usually uses my reading to the kids as a means of getting things done), and rearranged our schedules to make sure we get to it. So we had high hopes for the next book, The Runaway King. The battering of Sage/Jaron continues! Nielsen seems to enjoy inflicting trauma on her main characters.

But I digress. In this novel our protagonist from the first book is back, now as King Jaron. He’s finding the kingdom in a bigger mess than he realized, with much of the difficulty stemming from intrigues within his own court. Not sure who to trust, and faced with a serious threat to his life, he does what he does best: pretend to be someone else. This time he attempts to infiltrate a group of Avenian pirates threatening to destroy the kingdom to get to him. As he gets closer and closer to his goal he is increasingly forced to make difficult choices between his country, his own life, and the people he cares about.

In this book Nielsen manages some difficult characterization. Jaron has changed–he has to! Yet he’s still Jaron at heart, with all the good and bad that entails. He still makes many of the same stupid mistakes, and for the same reasons. He’s still more stubborn than is good for him. And he’s still got the same noble heart that refuses to compromise what he believes for his own comfort and expediency. He’s still a rogue, but still a lovable one.

This book is populated with many of the same characters from the first, along with a bunch of new characters every bit as memorable. We learn more about the political situation among the neighboring countries and within Jaron’s court. Plotlines from the first book come back to complicate matters. There is more than enough intrigue to drive three books.

We know all along that somehow Jaron will not just survive, but prevail. But Nielsen does everything she can to put that in doubt. Very little is easy, and she does what she can to continually ratchet up the tension. My kids never wanted to let me stop reading. And when the novel hits its cliffhanger ending they nearly wanted to form a lynch mob. My wife has pledged that we will no longer start reading a series until all the books are out. The idea of waiting until next March is painful.

I enjoy Nielsen’s work. She has a straightforward style that maintains just enough level of detail that clues don’t stand out, but without slowing the pace of the story. She’s writing suspense, and she knows it. She understands it. She wants you to keep reading, and she makes it hard not to. But she does so by creating characters we care about and putting them in situations that test their hearts. Everything else, especially setting, is secondary and treated with almost austere economy. Some might even argue the setting is too sparse. She certainly relies on her reader to fill in a lot of the detail, and yet the level of anachronism is surprisingly low. I had a particular time period/technology level in mind, but most of the details that challenged that did not do so jarringly, though I suppose it might for some.

My family and I loved it, and you can bet we’ll be in line come next March to pick up the third and final installment. But she’s set herself up a fairly difficult task. Twice now she’s had the resolution of the book come through Jaron pretending to be someone else. It’s worked so far, but if the third book goes down that same road again I will be very disappointed unless she manages to make it make perfect, inescapable sense. I’d much rather see Jaron rise to the occasion as king and put more trust in his grown cabal of friends than resort to the same plotline yet again. Twice worked, but a third time may lose me.

And yet it will be difficult for her not to. The books so far have been in first person. Describing his perspective of others going off on missions to rescue his loved ones won’t be very exciting. Political thrillers in first person can be difficult. And yet the circumstances that ended the second book will make it very difficult to just run off again–and I may find it very disappointing if he does. But we shall see. So far she has not disappointed.

(Incidentally, this weekend she revealed the cover for the third book. Very intriguing…)

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